Just a few short years ago, General Motors was in big trouble. Their dogged refusal to adequately address the needs of the American consumer had made them non-competitive with foreign car manufacturers. Then the great recession hit and the government bailout rescued GM.
Around the country, there was great debate about the logic behind these bailouts, but say what you will, at least because of them American car companies seemed to get the message—be competitive at all costs.
Recently, Michael Sznajderman from Alabama Power called me and asked if I wanted to drive the new Chevy Volt. I didn’t know what a Volt was but I imagined that it was an electric car. After all, the thing is named Volt.
It needs to be noted that I am not a car buff. I rarely look under the hood of a car unless it’s to jump a battery. My lack of knowledge when it comes to all things vehicular should not be underestimated.
Sznajderman showed up at the office with two Chevy execs and we went for a spin. From the outside the car looks innocuous enough, with the common and recognizable design of a modern four-door sedan. The interior is well appointed with decent leg room in the back.
That’s when the Volt began to betray it’s less then common pedigree.
With a simple push of a button, the car started whisper-quiet. The high tech readout on the dash displayed how much battery power I had, and also informed me that at the moment I was averaging 124 miles to the gallon!
At this point I was beginning to think the Volt was a hybrid, but apparently auto-averse me was wrong again.
In a hybrid, there is a typical internal combustion gas engine that runs the car. The engine switches to electric power at stops signs and runs up to a certain speed before the gas engine engages.
The Volt is an all-electric vehicle with a catch. Unlike a Hybrid, it has a very powerful electric motor in use at all times and when it runs low on power, a gasoline engine kicks on to power the cars electric batteries. This means that on a long road trip, you do not have to recharge your electric battery, you simply drive and refill with gas when necessary to insure that the electric engine will continue charging.
At night you plug in the battery like a traditional electric car, and if you live close to the office, you can drive (up to 40 miles) without burning the expensive petrol that this mad world is addicted to.
The Volt can reach speeds of up to 100 mph (I didn’t try it) and accelerates nicely on the freeway when passing.
Green enthusiasts can take heart in the fact the Volt averages a cost per mile of between 2 and 6 cents. A normal gas powered car averages around 15 cents a mile. Emissions are much less and of course the savings on fuel is dramatic. Gas mileage is very low when driving around town and is about 50 mpg on the highway.
It should also be noted that the Volt accomplishes what an all-electric vehicle cannot. It can be taken on long trips without the need to stop every 50 to 100 miles to charge the vehicle, and that unlimited range makes the car much more attractive than the standard electric.
Of course, it’s not all butterflies and rainbows. At $33,000 base MSRP, the Volt has a hefty purchase price sure to keep it out of range for many in this budget conscious environment and those worried about future costs have a hefty $10,000 battery replacement to look forward to at around 100,000 miles, though that price may come down as technology advances. Still, the high cost of battery replacement means that the resale value of the Volt may significantly decrease late in the cars life.
There are a few other niggling annoyances. The Volt only seats four, and strangely for a vehicle that doesn’t rely heavily on its gas engine, it only takes premium gasoline. Which, given the other price barriers the Volt poses, may be a deal breaker for some.
What hits home to me is that this is a Chevrolet, not a Honda, Toyota or Nissan. We’ve grown accustomed in America to seeing foreign car technology overtake our bloated, dinosaur-like auto industry, displacing a once vital US manufacturing staple.
I use to scoff at people who insisted I “Buy American,” I guess because the idea of purchasing inferior products in order to be patriotic seemed ridiculous. But now, the Chevy Volt makes me want to shout it out loud—buy American!!
Chuck Leishman is the publisher of Birmingham Weekly. Please send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org