7 days with the Chevy Volt: Gas-free and fully charged
Suddenly, everything else is just a car.
I like paying $4 a gallon for gas as much as the next person. Which is to say, not one damned bit. So when the kind folks at GM called and offered to loan me a 2011 Chevy Volt -- Detroit's plugged-in answer to the Toyota Prius and Nissan Leaf hybrid cars -- I leapt at the chance.
I find the idea of abandoning fossil fuels, even for just a week, intoxicating. If I could go totally green without turning my family into crazy hippie/Ted Kaczynski types, I'd do it in a heartbeat.
It turns out my experience with what passes for Green Tech in Detroit wasn't what I expected -- in ways both good and bad (but mostly good).
Day one: The delivery
The Chevy Volt arrives. Oooh, shiny. It is red, sleek, and comes with a 19-foot extension cord. The delivery guys, who have driven 7 hours from Atlanta to get this car to us and now must drive 7 hours back, apologize profusely for a small defect: An error message on the dashboard LCD says the charging door (where the extension cord plugs in) is open, when in fact it is not. They beseech us to please, please not give the hybrid car a bad review because of this defect. I get the impression the freedom of their families depends on the outcome of my review. I tell them not to sweat it. They are intensely grateful.
Still: Our car has a software bug. That's a first.
I slip into the driver's seat. The Chevy Volt immediately wakes up: The dashboard and center console LCDs come on, the air flows, the radio plays. It's a little unnerving -- kind of like KITT in "Knight Rider." (The 1982 original, not the 2008 reboot.) I keep waiting for it to speak to me in the voice of actor William Daniels. For a few milliseconds I feel like David Hasselhoff.
Then I realize it's just reacting to the RFID chip in the key fob, which is in my pocket. Duh.
Day two: Power struggles
I am dying to drive this baby. And I certainly could. But because the battery has been drained by the long drive from Atlanta, I'd have to use the gas backup, and that just doesn't feel right.
The Chevy Volt goes 35 to 40 miles on a charge, then switches over to gas for longer trips. With gas the car can go 350 to 400 miles. I find this bit of information disappointing. I wanted to drive an electric car, not a 10 percent electric car.
Then again, the vast majority of our trips are less than 5 miles round trip. My wife works at home. I ride my bike two miles to an office each day. When we drive it's mostly to school, the supermarket, and the burrito joint down the road from the supermarket. Odds are good we will never need the gas option if we keep the car plugged in when it's parked.
And that raises another issue, which until this point I had not considered: Where do we plug this sucker in?
If we had a 240-volt socket, it would recharge in just four hours. At 120 volts, it takes 10 to 12 hours. (Though when you plug it in, it auto detects the voltage and tells you what time the car will be fully charged. Why don't laptops do this?)
We don't have a garage or one of those groovy GE electric charging stations that look like old-timey gas pumps. We must park the Chevy Volt directly outside our back door, leave it ajar, and snake the bright orange cord into the nearest AC outlet in our mudroom. The dogs like it, because now we can't stop them from running in and out whenever they please. It's not very good for our air conditioning bill, though. I'm not feeling very Green at the moment.
Day three: Behind the wheel
I have been driving since the Carter Administration; I think I can figure out how to start a car. Only I can't figure out how to start the Chevy Volt.
With the key in my pocket I press the bright blue power button on the center console. Nothing happens. An error message displays on the dashboard, telling me I need to hit the brake. I press the button and tap the brake. Nothing happens. I repeat the process. Again, nada. I look for an alt-ctrl-delete option to reboot.
When the delivery guys dropped off the car, one of them handed me a three-ring binder explaining the basics of the Chevy Volt, along with a cell phone pre-programmed to dial the GM support line if we got totally flummoxed. He then walked me carefully through how to use the cell phone, like I was a bit slow. (Perhaps I reminded him of David Hasselhoff.)
Still, I resisted the urge to hit speed dial and broke out the three-ring binder. It turns out you need to hold the brake down first and then press the power button. Simple enough. But it's the first time I've had to crack the manual to turn on a car.
When I shift into reverse the rear view camera comes on the center console LCD. It feels like reality TV. Superimposed over the grainy black and white image is the projected path of our vehicle, which moves in snakelike fashion as I turn the wheel. I crank the wheel back and forth, back and forth. I am mesmerized.
"We are going to leave, right?" my wife says from the passenger seat. "Some time before the kids head off to college?"
But no, I'm having too much fun with the controls. The Chevy Volt's center console features a variety of 'soft' buttons -- for air flow, temperature, satellite radio, GPS navigation -- as well as a touch-screen LCD. I still have no idea what some of them do.
There's a mysterious button with a picture of a leaf on it. I press it. The center screen displays an animated graphic of electricity flowing from the car's battery through the power train. There is, as far as I can discern, no real information conveyed by this animation beyond the fact that a) you're driving an electric car, and b) ain't it cool? Yes, it's cool.
Day four: Cruisin'
The Volt has become "our" car. Nobody wants to go anywhere in our once-spiffy 2008 Honda Fit. Our still roadworthy 1996 Honda Odyssey minivan now looks like a relic from an ancient civilization.
The Volt's dashboard LCD actually tells me how well or poorly I'm driving. On the right side of the screen an animated green globe slowly spins and bobs inside a bubble. If I accelerate too quickly, the globe rises above the bubble and glows red; if I brake too hard, it drops below the bubble and glows red. But mostly it bobs in the middle.
I alternate stepping on the gas and hitting the brakes to see if I can force the globe out of the bubble. My wife helpfully suggests I might consider also watching the road before we all die.
"See all those shiny metal objects zipping around out there? Those are called 'cars.'"
When not waxing sarcastic about my driving (a life-long avocation), my wife did come up with a solution for our recharging problem. I drive the Chevy Volt into the back of our wooded lot and park it next to our greenhouse, which has an 120-volt outlet (and no air conditioning). Sitting in the woods, with its bright orange power cord plugged into the greenhouse, the Volt finally looks sufficiently Green.
I have to admit, though: The constant 'Your charge door is open' error message is starting to annoy me.
Day five: Taken to school
Every morning I take the Chevy Volt to drop my tween daughter off at middle school. The first thing she does upon entering the front seat of any vehicle is to hijack the radio and crank up the Kesha until our ears bleed. But the Volt's center console panel has her stumped. She can't figure out how to change the Sirius satellite radio from its favorites, which are all preset to Music for Dead People: Classical, Spa, and Watercolors. I make her listen to Watercolors (soft jazz) until she begs me to stop.
When we arrive at the drop-off point, the school principal -- who opens every car door to greet every student but otherwise has uttered a total of 17 words to us all year -- suddenly lights up at the sight of the chevy.
"How d'ya like it?" He practically beams. Turns out he's an electric car nerd. He walks around the front of the car to get a better view.
"Hey, did you see that your recharge door is open? Here, let me close it for you."
Day six: Crash!
Our trial is almost over, so I decide to break the rules a little bit. I don't plug the Chevy Volt in overnight, and the next day we take it to the beach, a 20-mile round trip. I want to find out what happens when it runs out of juice.
I ease the Volt onto the freeway. It accelerates easily and quickly. I manage to get the globe to rise slightly but not entirely out of the bubble. On the way back home I watch the battery indicator on the left side of the dash glow red and count down the miles 3.... 2.... 1.
It shifts over to fossil fuels and... nothing. I detect no change in driving whatsoever, just a slightly louder sound coming from the engine. Damn. That was disappointing.
I'm heading downtown at dusk, coming off the freeway onto surface streets at around 40 mph, when some idiot in a Toyota cranks a left directly in front of me. She's talking on her cell phone, paying no attention whatsoever. She doesn't even see my bright red Chevy Volt.
I don't think, I just react -- cranking the wheel hard toward the shoulder and nailing the brakes. The Volt breaks cleanly and stops six feet from impact. No skid, no slide, no sudden jerk forward. Impressive.
The idiot giggles and keeps driving (and talking).
Had I continued without braking I would have T-boned her, abruptly ending that conversation. The Chevy Volt's airbags would have deployed, and the OnStar system would have automatically been alerted to send the EMTs to our location via the car's GPS. And then we'd have some 'splainin' to do to the kind people at Prestige who loaned us the car.
Of course, if I had been driving the minivan, I'd probably be writing this from the hospital. Or maybe not at all.
Day seven: The Short Goodbye
We like this electric car. I like it, my wife and daughter like it, even my 14-year-old -- who rarely likes anything that doesn't involve high-caliber weaponry -- likes it. So my son, to whom the concept of money as a finite resource has never quite gelled, asks why we don't simply buy it.
Because, I reply, it costs $40,000 (minus a $7,500 Federal tax credit for buying a fuel-efficient vehicle). He shrugs.
I think, but do not say: And if we did buy it, we'd be hiding the keys in a different location each night to keep you from climbing behind the wheel. I've seen how that boy drives in Grand Theft Auto. There's no effin' way I would let him get near the thing.
Still it's sad when the delivery guys come to take our Volt away and replace it with a Chevy Cruze Eco, GM's most economical gas guzzler. But it's not in the same league with the Volt. It's just a car. It has no -- how do I put this? Electricity.
And no one would ever mistake me for David Hasselhoff.
The delivery person who dropped off and picked up the car was misidentified in the sixteenth and forty-third paragraphs. These paragraphs have been corrected.