By Allen Penticoff
It was February 1992 when we bought our last new car — a 1992 Honda Civic VX that we are still driving. There have been a lot of other cars purchased and sold along the way, but none of them new.
Beginning with my wife, Ruth’s, request for “a car with an automatic,” we’ve debated what changes could bring about that request. There are plenty of good used cars that could have filled the bill. I could have taken advantage of the “Cash for Clunkers” program and traded in our 1990 Suburban on something more efficient, but our goals were not clear, and the opportunity came and went in a flash.
The Chevy Volt was not on the market then, and I really was not in the mood to buy a small sedan — although, in hindsight, I should have purchased an inexpensive Ford Focus with the $4,000 trade-in we could have had. Story of my life — often a bit too late to take advantage of something.
And such it has been percolating in my head for a long time — slowly pushed toward actually doing something by driving a very crude device … our 1981 Volkswagen Rabbit diesel. With its unruly diesel habits, and present lack of heat (both the fan and the heat control are not working), the urge to have something new that did not require fixing had suddenly flushed into mind. There are a lot of choices — and I had been ruminating on all of them.
Then, one day, while going to lunch in Machesney Park, I noticed a late-model Toyota Prius out front on display at Speedway Auto Mall. I walked through a rapidly-melting crust of snow to have a look. It was like new, but was a bit more than I wanted to spend. Nonetheless, I went back to my Rabbit and drove over to the showroom to inquire about the mileage on the Prius, since one can’t tell by looking in the window with today’s digital odometers.
Out front was a silver Chevy Volt in a line of other sporty cars. But the Volt did not have a price in the windshield like the others. Not only did I inquire about the Prius, but I asked if the Volt was for sale. Indeed, it was. In fact, the sales manager had been driving it a lot and was impressed by its economy.
A salesperson took me out for a short drive in the Volt, and we talked about it a lot. It was a 2012 base model with 37,000 miles on it. I went back to work — but came back a bit later and made a down payment to hold it, thinking a used Volt was a rare thing.
Finding the perfect Volt
For several reasons, we could not close the deal right then on the Volt at Speedway. In the evening, I went online and found other used Volts, some not too far away. Hmmm … I liked them better. I was not terribly fond of the silver base Volt with the high mileage, and found in Hodgkins, Ill., at Advantage Chevrolet, a 2013 red Volt with the premium package and very low miles for not much more than the one in Machesney Park. I was hooked.
Hat in hand, the next day, I went into Speedway and asked to cancel my purchase. No problem. Literally, no more hassle than returning wrong screws to Menards. I then moved on to do more Internet research about used Volts for sale, but this one in Hodgkins was the car I wanted, and it was a reasonable distance.
Used Volts are in the price range of $22,000 to $27,000. The new MSRP is about $41,000 — but buying new can get you a $7,500 federal tax credit and a $4,000 State of Illinois tax credit. Doing a bit of math shows that the used price is not so much a reflection of depreciation as it is that the tax credits were taken by someone else — so what you get in a used Volt is an after-the-credits price.
If you are looking into Volts online, be aware that some 2013 new cars are being listed as used. The price shown is after tax credits and rebates — so unless you can take all those credits and get that money back, you are not really getting the price they are claiming, and you are also paying sales tax on the full price, not the post-credit price.
Buying used can still be a great deal, but you may be just as well off getting a brand-new 2014 (there may be large rebates) and taking the full tax credit if your situation warrants. Mine did not — so buying slightly used was more appropriate, and getting a Volt for the price of a new, well-equipped average small sedan was even more appealing.
I’ll not get into the gory details of the purchase — but I really was not well prepared for the “new-car purchase treatment” and dealing with professional new car salesmen. Let’s just say, they are good at what they do.
I did trade in my trusty 1990 Suburban somewhat reluctantly — but something in my fleet had to go, and it was chosen to be sacrificed to the new-car buy. I got about what I expected for it. Somebody somewhere will probably part it out … it has a lot of good parts.
I ended up driving our nearly new (8,500 miles on it) Volt home on busy Interstate 88 at night. Although more or less based on the popular Chevy Cruze, there are a lot of things different about the Volt, and driving at night is not a good time to be trying to figure them out. It took until I got to I-39 before I figured out where the side mirror adjustment was. I couldn’t change the CD I was tired of listening to until the next day, when we found the eject button right next to the CD slot.
In the days that followed, driving “Ruth’s car” around, I began to figure things out. That, and reading through its two thick owner’s manuals — one is for the Infotainment System.
Figuring out the Volt
As delivered, the Volt had recorded a lifetime fuel efficiency of 143 mpg. Around town the first three days, we used no fuel. That’s my 20-mile commute to work from New Milford to Machesney Park, via I-90, then back down the shorter route through Rockford without using any gas.
Saturday and Sunday were similar days, where the trips taken about town used no gas. The battery refills overnight plugged into a standard 120-volt outlet — although it takes about 12 hours for it to recharge a totally depleted battery.
Come Monday, it was a cold, blustery day, and I knew there would be extra running around. So, I used the “hold” mode of the Volt to run the range-extending 1.4-liter engine while I ran the heat on full blast. Once the car warmed up, I turned down the heat to “Eco mode,” and switched to normal electric mode to drive around. As a consequence, I drove about 43 miles and used a half-gallon of gas — yielding 80 mpg for that day.
It was interesting to watch the real-time mpg drop while the engine ran — then to watch the mpg increase to 80 while driving home with electricity. The other modes are “mountain” and “sport,” the latter allowing a quicker response to the throttle input. It is fast off a traffic light in normal mode, so sport is for … I’m not sure yet. Mountain is complicated to explain here, just it reserves some battery power for going up steep inclines.
I had to drive back to Hodgkins for some dealer-applied “treatments,” so it was a good trip to understand the navigation system and other features a bit better. I first went to Bolingbrook to overnight with my nephew and his family, so I drove in hold mode most of the way so I could save some battery for show-and-tell purposes when I got there. But, I drove too much on the engine, and had too many electric miles left when I got there (a bit wasteful on gas, but I recharged overnight, too — saving gas on the rest of the journey).
This wastefulness was because a friend and I chatted much of the way over the built-in Bluetooth speaker/phone system, distracting me from the task at hand (the owner’s manual repeatedly warns of not being distracted while driving — amen). The Volt has OnStar as well, and for $11, was offered 300 phone minutes the first year — the car has its own phone number!
Returning from Hodgkins the following afternoon, I reset one of the two trip meters — that also displays fuel used and real-time mpg. While burning gas on the highway at 70 miles per hour, the Volt averages 40 mpg. Not bad, and just what I’d reported long ago when I first reviewed the Volt in my column. But a consequence of all the highway driving on premium gasoline is that the lifetime mpg average dropped down to 135. Since we’ve been driving on electricity again around Rockford, it has crept back up to 138. Strangely, the energy use display screen reports “250+ mpg” when you are driving around purely on electricity.
Discovering the bells and whistles
With many of the cars I’ve reviewed for Mr. Green Car columns, I have given scant attention to all the bells and whistles that come with modern cars — literally, I’ve not turned them on. There is not enough space in the column to describe them, and there is much commonality among them. So, why bother? But now, I have to deal with this machine and its fancy electronics and infotainment. (I was fortunate to have a young Advantage Chevrolet salesperson set up the Bluetooth link with my phone — I doubt I’d managed it on my own.)
I have learned to like the touch-panel switches on the console instead of messing with the touch display screen. I all but laugh when I use the voice command feature to change the station on the radio. It has taken some time to figure out how the all-electric climate control system works, and it is worth studying the manual to understand the electric parking brake. I am making peace with a digital speedometer, a feature I often disparage in other cars.
An interesting thing you can do is “start” the Volt while in a garage — plugged in, to pre-heat or cool the cabin for up to 10 minutes before departure and not use any battery power. It is even recommended you do this to save on the battery range. You can do this off plug-in as well, but if the battery is low, the engine may run.
Now, to show Ruth how this stuff works. She’s too busy to read the thick manual, but there are passages she will need to read to understand fully (parking brake). But at least she is now driving her car. That frees up the old green Honda Civic for me to drive, to enjoy its heat and relative luxury compared to the Rabbit.
Enjoying life with a Volt
Like President Barack Obama, who said he’d like to have a Volt someday — I said when I tested one, that I’d be very interested in owning one. I am excited. I am enjoying this fine piece of American technology.
I realize the Volt is not a “hybrid” — but is, as Chevrolet describes it, an Extended-Range Electric Vehicle. I love driving smoothly and quietly on electric power, and cringe whenever it seamlessly starts the engine as the battery runs out.
The other night, we ran out of battery a block from home, and used less than a tenth of a gallon to get to our garage — yay! It still registered the day’s travels as 250+ mpg — a perfect run!
From the Nov. 27-Dec. 3, 2013, issue