Your Mileage May Vary: Why I bought a Volt

So it was time to replace my much loved Honda CR-V. I’d owned it almost 12 years, I’d put 141,000 miles on it, but it had reached that age where there was going to be a succession of little hassles with it. It was a great car for me when I lived in Flagstaff, AZ in the snow, but now I’d given up on the “I’m so awesome I don’t have to live in Silicon Valley” delusion, and embraced the reality of “I’m awesome, but if I’m actually in the same room as my employees I can make them awesome too”. So having a snow capable vehicle wasn’t a priority.

So I started looking around. The first thing I did was ask my friend Steve, “What kind of car should I get?”. He’s the one that turned me on to the CR-V in the first place, and he’s a car/tech buff. I’m a computer person, but I’m not really a car person. I told him:

I have an 8 mile commute that takes me 30-40 minutes, so I figure I’m spending 22-32 minutes sitting at lights. So what I really want is a car that’s comfortable for sitting at traffic lights.

He suggested a Leaf, a Volt, or some kind of electric car or hybrid. I wasn’t totally surprised by this, because I knew that Steve already owned a Leaf. He actually pushed me more towards a Volt than a Leaf though.

So I started looking into it. The first thing I found was sticker shock. MSRP for a Volt is $40,000. I think that’s where most people stop. “I could get a BMW for that!” they think, and move on. But like many things about a Volt, its more complicated than you might think. I ended up figuring out that the Volt seems expensive but its cheaper in the long run.

The first thing to consider is the state and federal tax credits. In California, a Volt costs about $9,000 less, because the Federal Government will kick in $7,500 and the state will kick in $1,500. It’s in the form of a tax credit so you have to wait until tax time, but that drops the price down to $31,000. Before you bleed for California and their budget problems, remember that the state still collects Sales Tax of about 8.5% on the vehicle.

So at $31,000 we’re now out of BMW territory. In fact, we’re pretty close to the $27,000 it would cost me to replace my CR-V with a CR-V-EX.

To make it even more interesting, GM was offering 0% financing for 72 months on the Volt.

So now I’m looking at a car that would:

  • Save me money every month on gas.
  • Wouldn’t cost me anything to finance.

Suddenly, the Volt went from being expensive to being competitive, on price. It got better from there.

So then I started looking into how much I would save on gas each month. This is where it really started to get interesting. Your Mileage May Vary, is very much true with the Volt. The Volt is one of the few cars on the road that actually typically gets better numbers than the EPA or GM estimates. For everything about the Volt, the answer is “it depends”. It depends on how you drive, it depends on the temperature outside, it depends on the terrain you’re driving over. Neither the EPA or GM have any idea of how to estimate anything about the car, so all the numbers they report are just guesses.

A digression on how the Volt works: In essence, its like a Prius or other type of hybrid with a larger battery. It’s battery is large enough that most of your mileage, your commute and local errands, will use the battery. When I get home, I plug it into the wall (literally, the charger that comes with it is a standard plug), and while I’m sleeping, the battery recharges. Where it gets interesting, and what makes the Volt different from the Leaf or other all-electric cars, is that after the battery is empty, there’s a gas engine that kicks in giving you similar mileage to a hybrid. So your mileage will vary because it depends on the mix of pure-electric to electric+gas miles. If that weren’t enough, because batteries are based on chemistry they work best in moderate temperatures. The key takeaway is that the Volt is a Hybrid Plus. You will always get at least as good of mileage as a hybrid, with any pure electric miles being gravy.

So if the EPA and GM can’t estimate how well the Volt will actually do, who can? That led me to two sites: gm-volt.com and voltstats.net. The first site is the unofficial site for Volt owners, and I was able to find tons of information about the Volt, both good and bad. The second site is a collection of statistics about Volt mileage and performance from real Volt owners. Chevy has an official site, myvolt.com that does the same thing but its kind of lame, websites aren’t exactly GM’s thing.

Via Voltstats.net my car comes with its own website. Here it is. As I write this, Volt Stats is reporting that my MPG is 209. In the last week, my MPG has been 1000+, because I haven’t used any gas. When I am using gas I’m getting about 40 MPG, i.e. typical hybrid mileage. The only reason I’m not above 209 MPG lifetime with the Volt is because I haven’t owned it long enough! The dealer had not been able to charge my Volt before I picked it up, so I had to use .6 Gallons to get home so every time I drive somewhere I’m making my average better.

Like I said, Your Mileage May Vary, but from the above sites I found out that I should be able to easily exceed the numbers provided by GM and the EPA. That made the Volt seem even more attractive.

Meanwhile, at current gas prices, I was putting $50 in my CRV once a week, or $200/month. That’s $2,400 a year. Even though I’d be replacing that with $7.50 worth of electricity, an electric vehicle was suddenly seeming like the cheaper option long term. With the right rate plan from PG&E, I might be replacing that with $1.50 worth of electricity. $200/month in gas savings would make a substantial part of the car payment.

That’s when I started looking at the 5-year-cost-of-ownership numbers from kbb.com (Kelley Blue Book) and Edmunds.com. Their numbers were off for the Volt because of the 0% financing, their gasoline costs were just a wild ass guess because of the EPA/GM problem. Gas in CA is running me $4.25, not $3.80. After correcting for those, it came out that the Volt was going to essentially cost me the same as the MSRP over 5 years.

Meanwhile, the costs for every other car I looked at were about $10,000 more because of gas ($200/month for 60 months adds up), and $5,000 more because of something I hadn’t considered. Maintenance. Maintenance on the Volt is much cheaper because it works via electricity, as opposed to a gasoline engine which works by exploding things. In the first 30,000 miles/2 years, the only maintenance on the Volt is to change the oil. You’re not changing the oil because its worn out, you’re changing the oil because its stale. Oil gets stale! Most of the maintenance later on in the schedule relates to the gasoline engine/generator that is part of the volt, but that’s pretty light because unlike in a regular car, the gasoline generator runs at a constant speed and its simpler than in a car.

The $15,000 extra that a regular car would cost me hit like a brick. We’ve reached a tipping point, where the cost of gas and maintenance for a car over 5 years can exceed the cost of the car. Suddenly, the Volt went from being cost competitive with a CR-V to being cost competitive with cars that were about $10,000 less and not nearly as nice in the interior. Going through kbb.com and edmunds.com, I had to line up cars like the Ford Fusion, the Hyundai Sonata, the Ford Focus, and the Mazda 3 to beat the Volt on cost, and of those, few of them had a very nice interior.

The Volt was now winning on several fronts:

  • I would save significantly on gas, even over a different kind of hybrid. I was currently spending $2,400/year in gas, based on 4 fill-ups/month at $50 each.
  • It wouldn’t cost me anything to finance.
  • Maintenance was another savings.
  • The $9,000 tax credit meant the government was going to pay me to drive it the first year, because the first year of payments were less than the tax credits.

Remember, I started all this looking for a car that was “nice to sit in at traffic lights”.

So at this point, I was leaning pretty seriously towards the Volt. It would save me money in the long run, I could stick it OPEC, and the interior looked nice. My friend Steve told me about a Hybrids and Hot Rods show that was sponsored by the Mercury News, so he and I went to the show and I got to actually sit in a Volt. Though I couldn’t test drive one, I was also able to look at various other hybrids, and I eliminated everything but the Hyundai Sonata based on crappy interior quality. Most of them were like rental cars.

From the show I also found out that while Volts weren’t selling well elsewhere in the country in California and specifically in Silicon Valley they were selling really well. Especially because the newest California Volts qualified for the HOV lane. For my commute, driving in the HOV lane would save me 10-15 minutes each way. That’s an hour/week of extra time in my life. So dealers were selling them before they arrived on the lot. So I was going to end up paying MSRP.

Since I could get MSRP anywhere, in a way, that made shopping for the Volt easier. But at MSRP, I was going to be super picky about the options I wanted. Basically, that boiled down to my deciding that I didn’t want the Nav system at an incremental cost of $2,000. Between my iPhone, and the turn by turn directions provided by OnStar (3 years free with the Volt), it wasn’t going to be that useful. After that, I wanted the rear-view camera for backing up, and I talked myself into the speaker upgrade. Via Gm-volt.com I found out that the reader seat divider thing was also worthwhile.

Via GM’s inventory website, I found a dealer who had a Volt with the set of options I wanted on the way, if not on the lot, in the color I wanted. That was a challenge because most of the dealers were order Volts either loaded or with nothing. I wanted something squarely in the middle, what I called the “iPhone mix”. It was time for a test drive.

From asking around, and the above websites, I’d learned a couple of things in preparation for the test drive.

First, the Volt has 5 driving modes. There’s “D” and “L”, which are “drive like a gas car” and “drive like an electric car”, and then you can mix in “Normal”, “Sport”, and “Mountain” on top of that. Generally, I drive in Sport and L.

Normal drives like a Cadillac. It accelerates gradually, its mellow and relaxing, but slightly boring. Most of my co-workers who had driven a Volt had driven it Normal, and found it kind of poky. Which is strange, because unlike a gas car, an electric car has all of its torque instantly available. Touch the gas, well, ok, I’ll speed up. IN the Volt if you stomp the gas in normal, zoom, but you have to know it does that.

Sport mode drives like a Camaro. I owned a Camaro, driving in Sport reminds me of driving the Camaro. Touch the gas, zoom. Electric Car zoom, which in many ways is zoomier than my Camaro. My Camaro had 280 HP to the Volts 143, but the Volt has 143 HP at all speeds. The Camaro only had 280 HP in its sweet spot, when you stomped the gas, there was always a fraction of a second for it to adjust to the new gas.

The Volt is a lot more fun in Sport mode, though if you have a heavy foot, you won’t notice much difference. It doesn’t top out at 140 MPH like my Camaro, more like 100, but I only could ever get the Camaro up to 140 about twice in the whole time I owned it.

D/L is a little more complicated. The drivers manual that comes with the Volt will tell you that L extends the electric vehicle range by causing it to regenerate electricity instead of coasting, so its better in the city. While that’s true, I’m going to describe it differently. I’m going to describe how it feels to drive in L.

In a regular gas car, the “accelerator” accelerates. If you want to go faster, you push down from where you are. If you want to slow, you let up on the gas, and the air friction will slow you down, at which point you have to adjust the gas position again. If you’re going up a hill, more gas. If you’re going down a hill, less gas. Driving a car is a series of constant adjustments to the gas pedal even when maintaining the same speed. When driving the Volt in D, the Volt behaves the same way.

In L, the accelerator pedal acts more like a velocity pedal. Want to be going a certain speed? Push your foot down that far, and the Volt will accelerate or decelerate to match. It feels like cruise control tied to a pedal. It takes a moment to get used to, but barely a moment, then it feels like the most natural thing in the world. You can drive around the city using mostly just one pedal; I use the brake only for stopping that last 5 feet. After you’ve experienced it, L actually feels more natural than D, and its much easier to drive in.

So armed with all that, it was off to the dealer for a test drive.

Driving a Volt, or any other electric car is very different, in a good way. You know how driving the little golf carts is the best part of golfing? Now imagine a golf cart that can go 100 miles an hour. They’re that much fun to drive. Having 100% of the torque available at any speed makes it very fun to drive. Zoom.

Then you notice something that isn’t there: the engine noise. Electric cars make so little noise when moving and zero noise when stopped. It’s a unique experience. It’s very easy to get going very fast without realizing it because you’re used to the engine noise telling you how fast you’re going. During the freeway part of my test drive, the Volt was up above 80+ before I noticed that the outside had gotten a bit blurry. Kind of like when they kick in the hyperdrive in Star Wars. No noise, quick acceleration, Zoom.

Meanwhile, the Volt was also comfortable.

I was sold. It was comfortable, fun to drive in sport, comfortable to drive in normal, and quiet which I hadn’t realized would be such a big deal. So I pulled out the VIN for the Volt with the color and options I wanted which was literally on a train somewhere between Ohio and California, and the Dealer sold it to me. He told me it would take about 20 days to arrive, it took about 14. So on May 24th, I drove it home from the dealer.

At this point, I’ve had my Volt about 2 weeks, but I’ve only been able to drive it 1 week, because I was out of town on vacation. I love it. I don’t have my thoughts organized about why, but here are some points:

Remember what I said above about how quiet the Volt is? What I’ve discovered is that a large part of the stress of my commute is the noise. Much like traveling in an airplane, you don’t realize it, but the engine makes noise, so you turn up the radio slightly louder, or you talk louder, or you just live with the noise. But all of that noise is stress. My commute feels shorter. It’s just me, and my thoughts for 30-40 minutes. It’s almost relaxing to commute now. It’s me time.

The sound system is better than what I have in my house and better than any other car I’ve ever been in. Bose did an incredible job of equalizing the sound in the Volt. A car is a weird environment for sound reproduction with its mix of glass, steel, leather, and plastic, but you wouldn’t know in the Volt. The music is clear and crisp. Add that to how quiet the car is when moving around, and its amazing.

No gas, no gas station. Every day, I come home, plug in my car on the way into the house, and say “Take that, OPEC, Hah!” I’ve only used .9 gallons of gas, .6 of which was driving home from the dealer, .3 of which was a long trip that wasn’t quite enough to do completely electric after we diverted to another town for a drink. Because I had a Volt I didn’t have to worry about it, and the only reason I knew it had switched from pure electric to hybrid was because the gauge switched from being an “electric gauge” to being a “gas gauge”. The only reason my wife knew was because I told her “Hey, we just switched to gas”.

The Turn by Turn navigation from OnStar works great, even in the model without the map navigation. It knows where you are, it prompts you at appropriate intervals, it shows you giant arrows indicating what you have to do, the only thing it doesn’t have is a map. Oh, and I can send it the destination from my iPhone and it downloads into the Volt.

The iPod integration works great. I didn’t think I would use the Sirius radio that much, but I just discovered they have a Comedy channel I think I’ll use, especially if its been a hard day at work.

Everything seems like its automatic. As I walk away from the car, it locks itself. When I want to get in, I touch the door handle, and it unlocks. Air conditioning/heat and so on is fully automatic. In my CR-V it seemed like I was constantly adjusting the Fan, setting the blowers, switching between heat and cold, turning on the air conditioning, turning off the air conditioning. None of that in the Volt.

Driving seems more like gliding. It seems like the Volt glides from place to place, partially because of the quiet, partially because electric motors just drive like that. My wife and I call the Volt the Blue Ninja, because its blue, and its so quiet.

It’s not perfect, but its one of the best cars I’ve owned. Driving a Volt is like driving the future.

The Volt isn’t for everyone. It’s a little confusing, because you’re driving the future, and all the modes and options can get a bit complicated. It’s still a little “engineery”, kind of like most cell phones were prior to the iPhone. That wasn’t a problem for me, because I’m an engineer, but it might bother you. They’ll smooth that out in the years to come, and GM assigns everyone a “Volt Advisor” when they buy a Volt to help them through it. That’s the main reason I think they aren’t jumping off the dealer lots yet, there’s too many questions people have where the answer is “it depends”. GM also needs to pick one simple thing about the Volt, and push that in each ad. It’s basic marketing. GM’s current slogan “It’s more Car than Electric” is a head scratcher, and I own a Volt!

At the Hot Rods and Hybrids show a lady came up to the Volt salesman and said wanted a hybrid but she didn’t want a Volt because she “didn’t want to have to plug it in”. Based on that, I would sell the Volt via this slogan: “Going to the Gas Station Should Be Optional”.

As far as the complexity goes though, I would say that about half of the “it depends” are my fault though. I think most people would be perfectly happy driving the Volt around. Set everything to Auto, pick a radio station, call OnStar and have them set your destination in the Nav, and you’re ready to go. You’ll use less gas, you’ll be comfortable, and you’ll have less stress as you drive around. Its my tendency to optimize everything that both led me to the Volt, and made me dive into the 5 different driving modes. But that’s the stuff that’s fun for me. It’s the stuff that’s not fun, like going to the gas station once/week, getting the car maintained every 3-6 months, that’s the stuff that’s not fun for me, and that’s the stuff I that made me buy a Volt so I don’t have to do it!

If a Volt makes sense for your commute, you should seriously consider buying one.

5 comments for “Your Mileage May Vary: Why I bought a Volt

  1. Raymond Ramirez
    June 6, 2012 at 12:26 am

    If I could give you points for this article, I would! You cover everything that will help someone decide to buy a Volt. I mentioned some of your points in a few posts, such as the fact that the Volt will surpass the EPA MPG rating easily and constantly, while gas vehicles reach their MPG rating only by careful driving or hypermiling. Second, the gas and maintenance savings will almost pay for the Volt. And if the Volt is financed through Ally, you can get zero interest financing cost, which is exactly what I have when I bought my 2009 Equinox through Ally.

    Therefore, financially, there are many reasons to buy a Volt. Only brand fans will spend more money buying something else.

    Thanks for the report! Now if GM will sell Volts to Puerto Rico, then I can get mine!

  2. Mark Smith
    June 6, 2012 at 3:24 am

    Great write up on the Volt. Couple of corrections should be made. The engine/generator does not run at a constant speed, although at times it may feel like it. And Cadillacs aren’t slow anymore, have you driven a CTS?

  3. Chris
    June 6, 2012 at 9:31 am

    Excellant write up. And I like your slogan that kind of sums it up on multiple levels. I test drove a volt when I was back in the states last month and loved it. I currently live in Sydney Australia so can’t go out and buy one, but when I move back I will.

  4. David Marlow
    June 6, 2012 at 5:05 pm

    You covered the bases very well, and wile there are a lot of things to learn about the Volt, (I’ve had one a year now and am still learning things), I think it is actualy not any more complicated get in and drive like a regular car. However you are correct in that there are a lot of things to try, that are different about driving it,things that can optimise how you want it to work for you. I like that as well, So it very much depends, on how you want to drive it and you have a lot of ways to chose from.

    Your relaxing drive comments are spot on.

  5. SM Boss
    June 6, 2012 at 7:06 pm

    Excellent write-through Pierce. Took delivery on my red Volt 37 days ago here in Houston and your journal is dead on in comparison to my experiences with the car as well. You noted the quietness. I should note that I’ve driven to or from work several times with the sound system off to enjoy a new found tranquility to my 14 mile (each way) commute home. It is like driving the future! This must be how the first few thousand owners of mass-produced automobiles felt when they drove among horse-drawn carriages.

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