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Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Does the 2016 Chevy Volt Really "Seat Five?"

Answer ...not really. More on that subject later.
Chevy Cruze and Volt
I was hoping to see the Chevy Bolt and Tesla Model X at the Seattle car show but the Nissan Leaf was the only all-electric car I saw on display this year. Nissan hasn't messed with the Leaf's look yet but the range on its SV and SL models has been improved about 22% (for a price).

I saw maybe a half dozen hybrids and a few plug-in hybrids on display. I took several pictures of what I thought was a Chevy Volt displayed on a roped-off stage. Later, out on the floor, I ran across two actual Volts. I'd been taking pictures of the new Chevy Cruze by mistake, which looks a lot like the Volt from the side. There was no information available for either car.
Volkswagen Jetta hybrid
The Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid caught my eye. MSRP was $32,340, with a combined MPG of 44. Not bad. I asked the Volkswagen representative if there were any diesels present and was told that for obvious reasons, no.

The Volt has gone through a major redesign and according to Inside EVs:
Perhaps most importantly ... the 2016 Volt can now seat 5 persons [author's emphasis]. The fact you can seat 5 is a real selling bonus [my emphasis] for the extended range [my emphasis] car.
Note: the Chevy volt is a plug-in hybrid. Their marketing department created the term (EREV) extended range electric vehicle for its version of a plug-in hybrid to differentiate it from other plug-in hybrids. However, they don't hesitate to call it one or the other depending on the situation. For example, in an ad attacking the plug-in Prius, GM refers to the Volt as a plug-in hybrid. Interestingly enough, they also released an ad attacking electric cars. The Chevy Bolt marketing department was probably not too happy about that.

But perhaps most importantly (to borrow a phrase), the Volt does not really seat five persons anymore than a bicycle can seat two persons unless someone is willing to sit on the handlebars. I strongly suspect it was pressure from the marketing department that made the engineers put padding on top of the center console and connect a seat belt to it. The Volt is now the only car in the world where a passenger can sit on top of a padded center console and have, not one, but two cup holders directly between his or her legs ...awkwaaaarrd! I'm going to predict that the next request from the marketing department will be to lose the cup holders.
Back seat of 2016 Chevy Volt
I watched several people attempt, with little success, to sit on this "padded console with a seat belt" and the taller they were the more ridiculous it got.
Maybe not the smartest marketing ploy I've ever seen and just wait until the neck injury claims begin rolling in. On the other hand, I could be wrong, having already read on several websites that the Volt seats five as well as having already suffered Volt enthusiasts boasting in comment fields that the 2016 model now has five seats:
The 2016 Volt is a 5-passenger car. It can fit more comfortably than the Nissan Leaf. The Nissan Leaf is a very cheapo looking like its made-in-China materials. The Volt is much more upscale.

if 90% of the trips are less than 50 miles, then the Leaf and Tesla are carrying a lot more extra weight 90% of the time compared to the Volt. The Leaf has a lot worse passenger fitting and the Leaf look a lot worse than the Volt.
Admittedly, having a fifth seat isn't such a big deal. I can't remember the last time I had five people in my car. I could see soccer moms and dads wanting a fifth seat and most certainly a family of five but those groups must account for a small percentage of potential Volt buyers. I envision that the Volt engineering team was handed a list of critiques gleaned from the Internet to fix:
  1. Only seats four
  2. Only gets about 38 MPG while in hybrid mode (GM now says it's about 42 MPG)
  3. Only goes about 38 miles in electric mode (GM now says it's about 53 miles)(1)  
  4. Uses premium gasoline (no longer limited to premium)
  5. No quick charge capability
  6. Looks too much like the Chevy Cruze (I made that up)
  7. Costs too much (you can buy two Cruzes for the price of a Volt)

(1) From Consumer Reports:
GM claims a 20-percent bump, from 40 miles to 50 miles. We got 35 miles from the Volt we tested, so figure the new one may achieve around 40 real-world miles on electricity.
Fake fifth seat aside, I think the engineers have done a commendable job. Note that the Volt in hybrid mode now gets the same MPG as the Volkswagen Jetta hybrid mentioned above and for the same price. The 2016 Prius hybrid (which, surprisingly also resembles the Chevy Cruze from the side) still has a 10 MPG advantage over the Volt's hybrid mode as well as a $10,000 price advantage. The Volt retains the advantage of being able to transform into an electric car for about 40-50 miles if you plug it in. Some pundits are positing the hypothesis that the Chevy Volt concept is the beginning of the end for the Prius hybrid and I would agree except for the extreme difference in cost.

What is the advantage of going electric? You will use less oil. What are the advantages of using less oil? It costs less than electricity and if you live where the grid is low carbon you will produce fewer greenhouse emissions. However, because you are not likely to compensate for the high sticker price with fuel cost savings, the last argument standing is to pay a great deal of money to reduce greenhouse gas emissions assuming you live in an area that has a low carbon grid. This is as true for a Nissan Leaf as it is for a Chevy Volt.

From my experience at public charging stations, Volt drivers appear to plug their cars in more often than Leaf drivers do, which makes some sense considering that it has roughly half the electric range. But why do they bother considering that they don't have to plug the car in? Here's an interesting article from the New York Times about electric car and hybrid plug-in drivers battling over electrical outlets in California.

Certainly it makes little sense to go to so much trouble to plug a Volt in at a public station just to save a few bucks. I suspect they're doing it for bragging rights. It's a game to see how little oil they can use. With people fighting over public charging spots should plug in hybrids have a lower priority? I just thought I'd throw that out ; ).

One of these days someone will write an article about Volt drivers who have stopped plugging their cars in after the shine wore off. Does the fact that you have to plug in an all-electric car now become an advantage?

While researching this article I ran into a 2013 study by the Union of Concerned Scientists and Citizens which confirmed that only 2% of the 1000 people polled thought that a fifth seat was necessary. I was also able to tease out of this study the fact that 85% of those polled would have almost all of their range needs met with a 100 mile range electric vehicle. The study found that largely because not everyone has access to an electrical outlet for their car and because a lot of people think pickup trucks are cool (today's electric cars don't meet their "perceived" towing and hauling needs), at best only about 40% of car drivers can take advantage of a plug-in hybrid and only about 25% of drivers can can take advantage of an all-electric car with only 60 miles of range. With a 100 mile range all-electric car, the 25% figure approaches 40% and with high speed chargers at most gas stations, the 40% figure approaches 70%. Also note that ubiquitous high-speed chargers and 100 mile all-electric vehicles will spell the end of the Volt concept unless it can be made significantly cheaper than an all-electric car. The study also completely ignores cost. None of the above will come to fruition if the price of batteries does not become significantly lower.

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