Chevy Volt Electric Car, Age 1: Can It Survive Toddler Years?

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2011 Chevrolet Volt outside Detroit-Hamtramck assembly plant

2011 Chevrolet Volt outside Detroit-Hamtramck assembly plant

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One year ago today, the very first 2011 Chevrolet Volt range-extended electric car was delivered to a retail buyer, in Denville, New Jersey.

The Volt was intended not only to be the first production plug-in electric car from General Motors--erasing memories of the ill-fated EV1--but to serve as a technology halo car for the just-bailed-out company.

What a difference a year makes.

Against a steady drumbeat of anti-Volt diatribes from the occasionally fact-free Fox News, the Volt has racked up some interesting numbers.

So it seemed to us it was time to look at the Volt, one year later, and think about where it is today compared to, say, the 2007 Detroit Auto Show where the first Volt Concept was unveiled to rapturous reviews.


Enormous Media Exposure: The Toyota Prius hybrid-electric vehicle remains the gas-mileage leader in the U.S. market, but with volume sales and familiarity, it's become a part of the landscape.

2011 Chevrolet Volt

2011 Chevrolet Volt

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Starting in 2007, GM was extraordinarily transparent discussing the Volt program, its lithium-ion battery testing, the drivetrain details, and its efforts to bring a radically new technology and vehicle to market on a very tight schedule.

Perhaps the company had nothing to lose, but it was the right decision: Compared to the opaque development programs at other makers--virtually all Asian companies, and lately Ford's 110-percent-on-message ability to respond with talking points to virtually any question--it was exemplary.

And it worked. GM got almost five years of media exposure for a car that will sell in low volumes and likely not make a dime for years (just like the Prius, ahem).

It's Built In The U.S. of A.: It's long been assumed by the car-buying public that while U.S. makers are good at pickups, the innovation in fuel efficiency all comes from overseas.

First 2011 Chevrolet Volt built on production tooling at Detroit Hamtramck plant, March 31, 2010

First 2011 Chevrolet Volt built on production tooling at Detroit Hamtramck plant, March 31, 2010

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By choosing to build the Volt in its Detroit-Hamtramck assembly plant, GM put a stake in the ground for American innovation. That has undoubtedly helped it appeal to buyers who want to buy a U.S.-built car from a domestic automaker--but walked away years ago (see below).

New, Formerly Unavailable Buyers: The early buyers of Volts, by and large, are affluent early adopters in technology forward states like California. Many of those people wrote off Chevies 20 or 30 years ago after they or a relative had one too many bad experiences with badly-built, uncompetitive, half-hearted small cars from GM (or Ford, or Chrysler).

Those folks had to use Google to find out where their local Chevy dealer was located. Though small in number, they are conquests of the best possible kind: They love their cars, talk about them incessantly, show them off regularly, and say "Chevy" a lot.

More Sales Of Regular Old Gasoline Cars: The Chevrolet Cruze compact sedan has been well-reviewed, and the Volt actually uses some of its understructure.

But in-market car buyers who may never have considered Chevrolet compacts will visit just to learn more about the Volt. Some of them leave behind the wheel of a Cruze.

Chevy, Buick, and GMC 'Main Street in Motion' drive event, CitiField, NYC, June 2011

Chevy, Buick, and GMC 'Main Street in Motion' drive event, CitiField, NYC, June 2011

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This was best displayed at the GM "Main Street in Motion" event, which visited stadium parking lots around the country to put drivers behind the wheels of Chevy, GMC, and Buick vehicles in a low-pressure environment sans sales staff. To drive the Volt, you first had to drive a Cruze.

The Volt Is Actually A Great Car: Perhaps most surprising to an automotive press often composed of grumpy, doughy, middle-aged white men who loathe anything with even a tinge of green, the Volt is fun to drive, quiet, well-built, and powerful.

Like the all-electric Tesla Roadster before it, the Volt electric car is a vehicle that changes minds and wins hearts.

And it takes away the excuse of range anxiety, which lets too many lazy journalists avoid having to understand how electric cars are actually used in the real world by real drivers.


Battery-Pack Fire Concerns: To us, the most detailed summary of issues around the Volt battery-pack fire concern remains the detailed roundup of news items and perspective published by CalCars.

It argues that GM has done pretty much everything it could do to stay on top of the situation (and the sometimes sloppy reporting of it).

And once more, it bears repeating: None of these fires has occurred in a Volt on the road, being operated by an actual live human being. Or as one commenter quipped, "So what I'm reading is that I should make sure to get out of my wrecked Volt within three weeks?"

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Comments (22)
  1. Great article. As a Volt owner approaching his 1 year anniversary (longer if you tack on time spent with a pre-production Volt as part of the Volt Customer Advisory Board), I have nothing bad to say about the car. It is a unique and fun driving experience- its ultra smoothness is like nothing else on the road. And my real world overall mpg based on my driving patterns is 206 mpg. I am saving about $200/month in gas from my 1997 Z-28 and I am not noticing much of a difference on my electric bill. Although after languishing for almost a year, I did some badly needed repairs to the Z-28. The weather is getting colder in NY (generally low 40s), but am still able to hit 40-41 battery miles if I am careful.

  2. Great article covering the great Chevy Volt while recognizing its challenges.

    One point I would add is that the Volt has not been on sale in all 50 states until the end of 2011. This likely had something to do with the low sales numbers.

  3. "...automotive press often composed of grumpy, doughy, middle-aged white men..."

    Voelcker many not win any peer reviewed automotive journalism awards this year after that statement.

  4. Hilarious, John, nicely done and accurate...

  5. Yes, after 11 months with our Volt (#679), we are still most impressed. It is a MUCH more finished vehicle than our Nissan Leaf, and rides a lot like one of our previous Audi A4 cars. I still think GM did mess up by not having proximity locking/unlocking on the 2011 Volt series, but they did fix that for 2012. We have not owned an American car since a 1969 Olds 442 I special ordered when finishing grad school at Michigan State. We dumped that within a year, as it started falling apart in the first two weeks. The 2011 Volt meets the quality standards we have come to enjoy from Lexus, BMW, Audi, Acura, Toyota, and Honda. I can't wait to migrate to the Cadillac ELR version in another year or two.

  6. Nice job. Very well written.

    Just a quick question:
    You mentioned 10,000 sales was their goal. I know they stated 10,000 saleable vehicles in the following press release (dated either March or April... depending on the date convention you follow):

    ...which is different... and perhaps achievable. Do you have a different source for the 10,000 SALES number?

  7. Nissan will still take the prize (even if Ford quickly brings the Focus electric out) because they haven't caused a single fire to start...anywhere, and haven't had to lie about anything. I find it hard to believe that a person who has a family wouldn't feel uncomfortable having a Volt sitting in their garage at night.

  8. I agree about the garage thing.
    Scarier yet is to park a car full of gasoline in the garage, or a tank full of oil in your basement, or, worst of all, pipe explosive natural gas into your home. Very dangerous.

  9. George, I totally agree- the Volt's amenities and performance would qualify for a more expensive nameplate. And I really want an ELR. Its as if GM reached into my brain to design my dream car.

    James, we are so comfortable with our existing ICE technology that we are completely unfazed when vehicles are detonated in Hollywood chase scenes (and why are the good guys always walking towards the camera in slow motion when this is happening? But I digress.....) We need to get to that level of comfort with new technologies, like EVs/Fuel Cell EVs, etc. The issue is an educational one- just as it is common sense to drain a gas tank that is damaged in a crash, mechanics etc. need to know how to drain a battery that is damaged.

  10. Nothing is cooler than walking away from an explosion without looking at it.

  11. Eric,

    I see no issue with using the Chevrolet nameplate.

    The Corvette has a Chevrolet nameplate. If its a good enough nameplate for the Corvette, it is more than good enough for the Volt.

  12. Dave, I have no issues at all with the Chevy nameplate. My point (which I did not effectively articulate) was that no one would have any issues with the price of the car if it had a BMW or Mercedes badge on it. But because it is a Chevy, some people complain that it is overpriced. For me, and I suspect many of the Volt owners, the car is well worth the price- no other car is anything like the Volt. Every other car I have driven feels, well, old fashioned. And I love Chevy! My other ride is a 1997 Z-28.

  13. i park my volt in the garage every night and i have a family and so far i have gone 4000 miles with just 14 gallons of gas used if i get in a accident and damage the battery i will only sleep in the car a week or so to avoid fire
    P.S. i would buy anougther one in a minute if i could afford to

  14. There are more comments in this thread
  15. Nice article, John.

    I can understand how those who don't follow the technology closely can be misled by shock-headlines. What is most depressing is when those who *do* know better let their fanboy-ism get in the way of the facts. I would expect an early adopter of an EV, even a one that may be a competitor, to realize what really happened. I would also expect them to realize what is at stake, and who the real enemies of the EV movement are.

  16. The car will sell itself. What award didn't it get? High gas prices will have people clamoring for it....

  17. The Volt is the finest car I have ever owned. It cannot be compared to any compact cars costing less than $35,000. There is just no comparison. It handles like a BMW-3 series, Rides like a Lexus, and is Quiet as a Rolls-Royce. If you are looking to pay less than the above amount for your next car it is not a Volt. The Volt is truly a luxury car and better than that if you drive less than 40 miles per day you may never use any gas at all yet if your pleasure is to drive across the country the Volt is fully capable of performing magnificently on the open road as well. The only car under $50,000 that can do it all and turn heads where ever it goes. Take Care, Edward Ellyatt 2011 Volt #1506 over 20,000 miles.

  18. I feel the same about my Volt.

    It is the best vehicle I have ever owned......and have owned a BMW-3 and a hybrid.

    With my hybrid, I enjoyed the gas mileage, but felt that the vehicle was under-powered. It never felt like a luxury car.

    I never feel that way about my Volt. The combination of the smooth quiet ride, the performance and handling and NO TRANSMISSION. Its almost beyond compare.

    Then there is the sport driving mode. Push a button and suddenly the vehicle has more acceleration. Its like having two different vehicles.

    First Tesla, and now the Volt are proving that an electric drivetrain is more than just saving money on gasoline....

    Yup. The Volt is a luxury car.....

  19. John, you should have tallied all the awards / ratings the Volt has won / placed - I suspect the number and types is unprecedented.

  20. One of the best things about the Volt is driving up Waldo Grade approaching the Golden Gate Bridge and flying past several Priuses that are struggling to make the hill. This is one fun car to drive. 10,100 miles and 48 gallons of gasoline.
    Volt #324

  21. Personally, I will wait for a few more garage fires before forming an opinion on the usefulness/dependability of the Chevy Volt. To date, GM's brass has been less than forthright with its public relations. It's not that I don't like GM, I just don't trust 'em. Anything the U.S. Government touches, I tend to shy away from.....

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