COAL: 2012 Chevrolet Volt: An Enjoyable Time, Cut Short

2012 Chevrolet Volt side view

The replacement for the Kia came about because of a confluence of factors: my interest in having a technically-advanced electric drive vehicle, the desire of GM to sell me said vehicle to get them out into the public, and my ability to sell the Kia without losing my shirt. This all resulted in a car that I liked very much, but events out of my control (literally) meant that it didn’t spend as long in my garage as I would have liked.

As a member of the Society of Automotive Engineers, I was able to hear directly from GM engineers at conferences about the car’s technically interesting drivetrain. I was also able to attend conferences and hear from GM’s alternative fuel leaders about their vision for the Volt as the first in a series of electric drive vehicles that would demonstrate their technical leadership. I was very interested in the car as a practical everyday driver that would be able to meet my daily commute needs with electricity (although I missed that mark by a hair, as we’ll see).

Another consideration that swayed me was the very low lease payments available – of course, GM was subsidizing the car’s lease as a way to increase demand and put the cars in the hands of buyers.

I obtained the car from a dealer that was one of the biggest sellers of Volts in the area. The salesperson assigned to sell Volts was a Volt owner himself so he was aware of the car’s special features and how to sell them. The dealer was helpful, the deal was transparent, and the car came home with me.

The car’s advertised 45 miles of all-electric range was pretty close to what I achieved in real-world mixed driving (some surface streets, some highway). As I got used to the car and how it operated, it became somewhat of a game to me to see how far I could get in the 50 mile round-trip commute between home and work before the gasoline engine kicked in. Since I knew I’d never be stranded, the game was fun and I learned quite a bit about my commute and electric vehicles.

2012 Chevrolet Volt rear view

One thing I learned about the commute was that the trip from home to my office was slightly uphill, as I used more than 50% of the battery capacity to do half the trip. I caught up on the way home as I was going downhill, and it was fairly easy to see with the car’s many displays and information flows how the two directions differed. The heavy traffic that I experienced every day was actually a benefit to me, as the car offered a fairly aggressive “one-pedal” regeneration mode that did a very good job of pushing kinetic energy back to the batteries and making the stop-go traffic creep a lot easier to deal with as I only needed to modulate the accelerator and not touch the brakes.

I was able on a couple of occasions to stretch the 45 mile all electric range to achieve a full 50 mile round trip, but that required me being alone in the car (vs. carpooling with my wife), not taking the extra half-mile to stop at her office, and having ideal weather conditions (sunny and low 60s). The fact that I couldn’t quite get a full round trip was annoying only because as an engineer it bugged me that I couldn’t quite get there consistently. During the winter the question of getting a full round trip was moot as the use of the heat shortened range more than a bit (maybe 5 miles out of 45 as I recall).

Charging it up was quite easy – I had a 240 volt charger installed in my garage, and the Volt’s software was quite intelligent and user-friendly. All I had to do was to tell the car when I wanted it to be ready to go and plug it in. The software analyzed how much charge the batteries had, the type of charger it was plugged into, and when I wanted it to be ready and automatically began charging at the proper time to be ready in the morning.

2012 Chevrolet Volt interior

The car itself was very well-built. The last time I’d considered a GM car was in 1997 when I’d ended up with my first Toyota, and the interiors were not what you’d call competitive at the time (I was looking at the Cutlass’ last gasp at that point, by the way). The Volt’s interior was much nicer – I wasn’t exactly a big fan of the white Apple-style center stack, but in general the controls were well laid out and the materials were relatively nice. Quality outside was good as well – this car had the extra cost paint that involved a base coat, a tinted clear coat, and a regular clear coat that produced a particularly intense red. (Of course, touch-ups were a pain as matching the color required three steps instead of two. The price of progress, I guess.) Overall, the Volt did what GM wanted it to do – it brought me (a Toyota/Lexus buyer) into the showroom and sent me out with a GM car.

My enjoyment of the car was, as one might guess from the title of this post, cut somewhat short by an unfortunate event. About 18 months and 12,000 miles into my ownership period (i.e., roughly halfway through the lease), I was taking my usual route from my office down a fairly heavily traveled side street to reach the highway and my wife’s office. It had been raining somewhat so the roads were wet. I was in a line of cars as I approached a curve in the road that went off to the left for me. As I came close to the curve, a Nissan Murano SUV came around the curve in the opposite direction at a speed that I can only guess was well over the 35-mph posted limit – the rear of the SUV started to spin, the driver panicked, and overcorrected (probably to avoid going off the road to her right into the woods and a steep drop-off). The front wheels caught traction catapulting the Nissan perpendicular to my direction of travel across my path.

In what can be characterized as providence or just good luck, she collided with the drivers side of the Volt directly over the B-pillar between the front and rear doors. She was still moving fast enough to shove my car straight sideways into a 6-inch tall curb, breaking the rear control arm on the passenger side and leaving the rear passenger wheel in the street. Side airbags and seat airbags went off, tire smoke swept over the scene, and the very nice OnStar lady was talking to me almost as soon as the car came to a stop.

Accident scene with 2012 Volt

Once I dislodged myself from the car by crawling over the console to stand in the rain to survey the scene, I got a good look at the mess. The driver of the Nissan was a high-school teenager who’d left the front license plate of her car pinched between the two doors on the driver side of my car, the wheel was still in the street, and her car was roughly 50 feet behind my car (as I’d kept moving after she hit me) and was blocking the whole street. Luckily for me, my only complaint was a sore back from the seat airbag punching me in the kidneys. Ironically, I was on my way to pick up my wife and head for the rental car agency at the airport as we were going out of town for the weekend for her high school reunion. That made things a bit easier as I just had to call a colleague to come pick me up and take me to the rental car that was already waiting for me.

Several things made me suspect that the car was probably totaled. The initial inkling was when I opened the hood for the first responders to check for any high voltage wiring damage, and when they found none I couldn’t close the hood as the body structure was bent sufficiently that the hood wouldn’t line up. The second was when I called the tow truck company the next day to let them know that I still had the key in my pocket, and the response was “we won’t need it.”

Remains of totaled 2012 Volt

As suspected (and as you can probably tell from the photos), the insurance company totaled the car once they began taking it apart. They found that the floorpan was folded up much the same way a paper towel tube will kink if you bend it from the ends. Given that the car kept me from the hospital even though I tussled with a large-ish SUV, I wasn’t completely disappointed.

Once the insurance company resolved things with the leasing company (the gap insurance I got with the lease made it very easy as the leasing company accepted the settlement right away), it was off to buy another car. I wanted another electric drive vehicle as I found it to be very fun to drive, but my desire to have something with more electric range may have backfired just a bit, as we’ll see in a couple of weeks.