2011 Chevy Volt Owner Takes on the Electric Range Challenge

Continuous electric miles in 2011 Chevrolet Volt range-extended electric car [photo: David Noland]

Continuous electric miles in 2011 Chevrolet Volt range-extended electric car [photo: David Noland]

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Last week, an article on this site asked, "How Far Can The 2012 Chevrolet Volt Travel on Electricity Alone?"

As a Volt owner, I felt duty-bound to answer that question, and to take up the challenge of beating the 60-mile figure claimed by the driver of an Opel Ampera, the European version of the Volt.

In the summer, I typically get 40-45 miles of all-electric range,  with modest use of air conditioning and fairly aggressive driving in Sport mode. (I love the Volt's instant torque and see no reason not to use it.) For a maximum-range drive, of course,  I would have to tone down the acceleration and turn off the A/C.

But before my attempt,  I considered a number of other factors that affect the Volt's range, some of them not so obvious.

Outside air temperature.  In winter, my Volt's range drops dramatically; when the temp hits the teens, I'm looking at maybe 25-miles. But hot weather doesn't seem to have much effect on the battery; when the mercury tops 90 degrees, I still get close to 40 miles.

So I wondered:  what's the ideal temperature for maximum range in a Volt? In other words, at what point is no energy required to either heat or cool the battery?

For the answer, I called Kevin, my personal Volt advisor. (When you buy a Volt, you get a personal adviser to answer questions about the car. I've pestered the poor guy almost to death.) 

"The battery likes to be at 87 degrees," came the reply. "But since the battery produces some internal heat when the car's running, the ideal outside temperature for maximium range is the high seventies or low eighties."

Speed.  In a nutshell, the slower the better--up to a point.

2011 Chevrolet Volt on test in Little Rock, Arkansas, July 2011

2011 Chevrolet Volt on test in Little Rock, Arkansas, July 2011

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Aerodynamic drag, the primary retarding force on a car at higher speeds, increases with the square of the velocity. Thus drag is four times higher at 80 mph than 40 mph.  So slowing down is the single best way to boost range. If you're driving a Tesla Model S, for example, you can increase your range 40 percent simply by slowing from 75 mph to 55 mph. Slow to 35 mph and  you'll almost double your range.

But electric motors are designed to be efficient in certain rpm ranges, and if you get too slow, the motor starts to lose efficiency. At some point, it actually takes more juice per mile to go slower.

In the Tesla Model S, the max-range speed is about 20 mph. I have not been able to determine the Volt's max range speed, but I'm presuming it's smewhere in the same ballpark. Bottom line: I need to drive as slowly as I can. That means sticking to back roads where I can keep my speed in the 30-40-mph range without disrupting traffic.

Terrain. In another nutshell, the flatter the better.

2011 Chevrolet Volt plugged into Coulomb Technologies 240V wall charging unit

2011 Chevrolet Volt plugged into Coulomb Technologies 240V wall charging unit

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Because of regenerative braking, electric cars don't waste as much energy as gas cars climbing and descending hills. But only about 60-70 percent of the battery juice required to get you up the hill is regained coming down the other side.

So my route had to be as flat as possible--a tough assignment in New York's Hudson Valley, as I know only too well from years of riding bicycles  around the region.

For my destination, I chose New Paltz, a funky college town about 30 miles from my home, reachable by back roads over reasonably level terrain. (I picked the route partly because I have ridden it on a bike many times, and know all the nuances of its gentle ups and downs.) If I could complete the round trip on battery power, I would break the 60-mile barrier.

On a last-minute tip from Kevin, I pumped my tires up to 38 psi, the latest updated recommendation for the Volt. (My owner's manual says 35.) The higher the tire pressure, the less rolling resistance.

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Comments (6)
  1. pump your tires up to the max sidewall pressure (probably 44) and you might have made it.

    those tires are tested at 50% higher pressures and passed so you are not taking a risk. as far as A/C, at speeds under 40 mph, you would have used less energy by rolling down the windows to circulate the air.

    either way; a great post and good illustration of what can be done with EVs if you only wish to try

  2. Pump up the tires to 60lbs. The Goodyear assurance tires will last longer and handle better. Ive driven in 106 degree heat with the tires at this pressure with them rising only to 62lbs. IMO quit driving the car like an old lady.

  3. Did you use "L" at all during your trip? Using only "L" and minimizing braking helps me about 10-15%. Only problem? Those behind you will not see brake lights.

  4. Yes, I always use "L." I've come to prefer the feel of strong regen. But as long as you're doing only moderate braking, I don't see how this improves efficiency. The Volt's brake pedal uses regen for moderate braking, going to friction only in fairly rapid stops when regen isn't strong enough. You're using regen in either case--moderate braking or backing off the gas pedal in L.

    The Tesla Model S is different. Any time you step on the brake pedal, you're applying friction brakes and wasting energy.

  5. It's interesting to hear how the Volt's systems compare to our Leaf.
    Our MINIMUM commute is 60mi/day.
    Leaf has two modes, D and Eco, D feels sportier - lighter pedal, more power earlier, with light regen off the throttle. Eco makes you press the pedal harder to get more power, and regen is about double off the throttle.
    Lots of regen is bad for efficiency if you do not need to slow/stop. Best way to hypermile is low speed, and either holding the pedal to the 'neutral' position or just shift into N and coast.
    N is your friend if you're not very good at holding the pedal at zero.
    Personally, I use Eco in city driving, and D everywhere else. We average about 5.0mi/kWh, and I've had it up to 6.3.
    Thanks for the report!

  6. I noticed the "lifetime" 183mpg on the picture above. My Red Volt is in the 500+mpg range. ON the dash it max out at 250mpg.

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