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Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Chevy Volt Adventure: Houston Trip 1

On Christmas Eve we loaded up the Volt and headed to Grandma's house in Houston.
The picture shows the cargo area loaded for the trip. The cargo space is a little cramped but was able to accomodate what we needed for this trip, including all the gifts. It would be hard pressed to hold three full-sized rollaboards.

In the car we had me, my wife, our daughter, and our dog, Humphrey (a basset hound). Everyone was comfortable but this is definitely a 4-passenger vehicle because of the bucket seats in back. The seats were reasonably comfortable for a 3-hour trip, comparable to what I'm used to from our other car, a 2005 Toyota Solara convertible.

The total round trip from our house to Grandma's house is about 450 miles. The trip meter reports we used 8.1 gallons for a trip MPG of about 51, which is pretty good.

In our Solara, which averages about 22 MPG overall and gets probably 30 or so on the highway, we usually fill up at the halfway point out and back, using a full 15-gallon tank over the course of the trip. On this trip we didn't stop to fill up until the return, when the tank showed 3/4 empty. I put in about 6 gallons but I think the tank didn't fill (it was the first time I'd put gas in so I had no idea how much to expect to need—the tank must be 10 gallons if 3/4 reflected an 8-gallon deficit).

On the way out the battery lasted from Austin to just outside Bastrop, about 30 miles. It's clear that, as expected, highway speeds are less efficient than around-town speeds. I'd be interested to know what the efficiency curve is: is it more or less linear or, more likely, curves sharply up above say 50 MPH. My intuition says 40 MPH is the sweet spot. I tried to keep it between 60 and 70 for most of the trip (the posted limit for most of the trip is 70). I drove a little faster on the way home having realized that it didn't make much difference in efficiency.

Highway driving was fine. The car is heavy for its size, with the batteries distributed along the main axis, which makes it handle more like a big car than the compact it is. Highway 71 is pretty rough in places but the car was reasonably quiet at 70. When we left I-10 in Houston there was enough accumulated charge to use the battery for the couple of miles to my mother-in-law's house.

It definitely has power to spare and plenty of oomph. There's no hesitation when you stamp the accelerator and I had no problem going from 45 to 65 almost instantly to get from behind a slow car on I-10. We have yet to try the "sport" driving mode but now I'm almost afraid to.

The car is really smooth to drive--like driving an electric golf cart in the way it just smoothly takes off and doesn't make any noise.

If we had a problem it was the underbuilt electrical circuit at Grandma's that served the garage—at one point when we had the car plugged in and charging the circuit breaker flipped (a 15-amp circuit)—turned out the circuit also served most of the kitchen, where we were busy preparing Christmas dinner.

If there is any practical issue with the vehicle it's the climate control—it takes a lot of energy to heat it. Houston was having a cold snap so we got to test the heating system. The multi-position seat heaters are nice but keeping the controls on the "econ" setting meant that backseat passengers sometimes got a little chilled. You do realize how much waste heat gas engines produce when you don't have it available to turn your car into a sauna.

It was also weird to get back from a drive and realize that the hood is still cold.

We spent the last week traveling in the Northwest and rented the cheapest car Enterprise offers, which turned out to be a Nissan Versa, a tinny little econobox. The contrast was dramatic and made me appreciate the Volt. The two vehicles are comparable in size and capacity (but not cost, of course), but the Versa had a hard time making it up to highway speed and sounded like the engine might come out or explode under stress or blow off the road in a stiff breeze.

Now that we're back to our normal workaday life we'll see how it does in our normal around-town driving, but my expectation is that we'll use very little, if any, gas as we seldom need to go more than 10 miles from home (our longest usual trip is up north to Fry's, which is about a 20-mile round trip). We'll probably take it out to Llano and Lockhart for BBQ if we get a warm weekend in the next month or so.

On the way back from Houston we ended up near a Prius and ran into them at the gas station. They were interested in how the Volt was working and we got to compare MPG and generally be smug together. I ended up following them the rest of the way into Austin, figuring they probably reflected an appropriately efficient speed.

And I'm still getting a kick out of plugging it in whenever I bring it back home.



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