Mr. Green Car: Reviewing the Volt’s winter performance

By Allen Penticoff
Freelance Writer

Wow. What a winter we’ve just gotten through. Our timing for buying a Chevy Volt in November was not the greatest. While we did get a taste of what it can do, the long cold and snow season held it back from its potential. Here, I’ll provide a report on how the Volt deals with winter.

The Chevy Volt is considered an extended-range electric vehicle. It is an electric car with a gas-burning engine that provides electricity when the battery gets low. There is not a connection between the engine and the wheels (most of the time — there is a rare time when that is true) and the engine does not charge the batteries (again — most of the time — except in “mountain” mode). There is essentially no control of the engine, other than the ability to force it to run in “hold” mode. In hold mode, the engine provides all the electricity, and the battery power is saved for later use.

During some of the early cold days, I would drive in hold mode to use the engine power to run the electric cabin heater. The heater, like the one you use in the bathroom, is electric. It uses a lot of power and greatly reduces the driving range. It will also pull down the gas mileage of the engine considerably when operating on the engine — from a normal 40 mpg on the highway, down to perhaps 30 mpg. While it is plugged in at home in the garage, you can preheat the cabin with the remote start. It is recommended you do this. Unfortunately, we often forgot to preheat for the 10 minutes it will run and needs to begin to warm things up. But even if you don’t remember until the last minute, it helps to pre-warm the heater — otherwise it blows cold air for quite a while before it warms up.

If there is one gripe I have about the Volt, it is the heater system. The touch screen needs a lot of messing with. There is not a lot of control over what it is doing. It is slow to heat up on cold days, and as a result of apparently no fresh air being allowed in (yet to figure this out) — the windows will often fog up — forcing you to operate the defog, which turns on the air-conditioner, even though it may be quite cold out. If we’re bundled up to go for a winter hike, we often turn the system off to save on the battery range. Most folks are not going to do that. During sub-zero days, the electric heater really did not warm the car all that well until we’d gone quite some distance. When the temps are in the 20s, it does an OK job. We don’t have the heated seats Chevy recommends Volt owners use. We’re not big fans of heated seats anyway.

In warmer times, the batteries will provide 35 miles of driving before the engine kicks in. Around town, you can go many more miles than what the gauge says you can because of regenerative coasting and braking. If you drive in Low, which is not like low in a gas-powered car, it slows down as soon as you lift your foot off the pedal, and you can come nearly to a stop without using the brake (watch out if you’re following a Volt — its brake light may not come on until just before it stops). Low generates more electricity — and it is handy for stop-and-go traffic and dodging potholes. One can drive 70 miles an hour on the highway in low with no ill effect.

The batteries were only holding about 28 miles, on average, after an overnight charge in the colder days. Still quite good. The batteries are kept warm as long as it is plugged in, so whenever the Volt is in the garage — it is plugged in. But some days were too cold for even that to help much. We soon learned that when the temperature dipped (or plunged) below 20 degrees Fahrenheit, then the engine would run at times just to warm the batteries. The colder it got, the more the engine would run. On subzero days, the engine may run nearly the entire time at idle, while being propelled by the batteries. This would greatly reduce the mileage one would get. During these very cold times, it was not uncommon to only be getting 60 mpg on a run that in warmer times would be 250-plus mpg (Volt-speak for “battery only”). But there was no telling what you’d get from day to day. Running the heater so much dramatically reduced the range the batteries could move you, so in the end, the engine came on quite a bit during this period.

I had reset one of the two trip meters at the beginning of the year — thinking I’d keep track of the fuel burn for the whole year. Well, this winter messed up the whole average, so I’m thinking of writing down what it has burned so far and start over with the spring solstice. Just before the recent warm-up, it was showing that our average was 91 mpg for the year. Not bad. Beats any Prius. The other trip meter is reset after every fill-up — which was several weeks ago. Since then, with things warming up a bit and battery-only runs becoming more common, the mpg average has shot up to more than 200. We’ve gone 700 miles on 3.5 gallons of gas — most of which were for battery warming.

Like many of you, we had a bad encounter with a pothole … more like a crater. My wife, Ruth, hit a monster on her way to work one morning and blew out both left tires. Fortunately, she got it in to a used car lot, where I could spend the day finding and replacing the tires. The Volt comes only with a tire inflation kit. There is no donut spare, nor jack. There is no place to keep them. It may be best (I guess they assume you do) to have a towing service package like AAA or through your insurance to deal with this. If this had not occurred near home, we’d have had to put the Volt on a flatbed and have it hauled it away. As it was, jacking it was difficult, as there was no clearance on the left side — I had to jack it with one jack to get another jack under it! Finding the right tires to match the other OEM tires with 11,000 miles was a stroke of luck, too — aided by a quick Internet search that found a nearby Goodyear dealer (Just Tires) that happened to be able to get them same day. There is more to this ordeal, but I’ll spare you the details. But there are some lessons learned from it.

Lastly, the Volt, despite not having winter tires and having a very low ground clearance, does quite well in the snow. The electric drive provides lots of torque to the wheels without revving up. Traction is maintained, and there is little tendency to spin the tires, as long as one applies the pedal gently. Then again, we did not take it out if the snow was deep, either. That was the Honda’s job. The Volt stops no better than anything else.

We are very glad the end of this winter is in sight. We’re now back to going days of running around Rockford without using gasoline. That’s good on the environment, and our pocketbook.

From the March 19-25, 2014, issue

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