About 7 years ago, I began the search for a new car to replace my aging Volvo S60. I really wanted to go greener than a straight-up gas car, but I wasn’t terribly happy with most of the hybrid options that were available at the time. On the other hand, since most of my personal driving is just a couple of miles back and forth to work every day, I couldn’t really justify something very expensive/luxurious, it just wouldn’t get used enough. Audi, however, was promising the release of an A3 with this revolutionary new “Clean Diesel” technology that would push over 40MPG on the highway with drastically reduced emissions. Long story short, that’s I wound up buying.
Fast forward to today, and we all know how that ended, with one of the biggest class action settlements in history finalized just last week, for Volkswagen/Audi’s blatantly fraudulent advertising claims and NOx emissions up to 40x the legal limit. Not only were they not “clean”, but far dirtier than anyone could possibly have imagined.
With my personal settlement payment pending shortly, I decided the replacement for the A3 SuperPolluter needed to go full electric to try to exact a little bit of karmic payback for my unwitting years of complicity in the Dieselgate disaster. There are lots of better hybrids now, but still – what about something that could go full electric for most of my daily driving? Sure, I’d love a Tesla Model S, but the luxury pricing again makes no sense for someone who only drives 10-20 miles a day most of the time. How about a Leaf? Well, yes, it’d work great most of the time…but… there’s still that nagging range anxiety. What about those days where I really do need to go somewhere, or make multiple short trips that will exceed the battery-only range? It was starting to seem like I should consider researching the one car living squarely in feared territory: The American alternative, the Chevy Volt.
When I was a kid, my Dad owned a succession of Buicks. Evidently he got good pricing from one of his medical patients, who owned the local dealership and was willing to cut him a deal. My recollection of those Buicks, though, is classic 1970’s GM: Heavy, stodgy, gas guzzling, and thoroughly unreliable. He drove his last Buick with a gaping hole in the dashboard for years after the speedometer broke, and the dealership was somehow unable to successfully fix or replace it. My only recent experience with GM cars in the last two decades has been the occasional car rental on vacation, where I’ve usually been left relatively unimpressed by the experience. Nothing bad happened, but “boring”, “plastic”, and “unimaginative” are the words that leap most readily to mind.
So it was really on somewhat of a lark that I headed to the local dealer a few months back to take a look at the Volt. I definitely went in with low expectations, but a short test drive left me pleasantly surprised. The 2017 car was quiet even with the engine running, and had snappy acceleration, comfortable leather seats, and crisp handling. It wasn’t thoroughly ugly, nor as unappealingly “concept”-like as the original Volt body style from 2011, and while it still suffered a bit by using too much plastic in the interior fittings, it wasn’t so much that the balance was tipped towards an overly cheapened feeling. I came away far more intrigued than I expected to be. This was not, to steal a line from a different GM division, my father’s Buick.
The Volt holds a somewhat unique position as the only car on the market today that has a significant all-electric range (53 miles in the 2016/17 model years), but also has a gas engine whose purpose is not to drive the wheels directly (in most cases), but rather to run a generator that extends the electric range of the car as needed, even if the primary battery’s capacity has been essentially fully exhausted. Unlike most hybrids, where the gas engine generally can be expected to kick in after at most a few miles of ordinary driving, the Volt will happily run its full 53 electric miles before the engine ever even starts up. So on my typical workdays, with a full charge overnight, I would still be using zero gas, just as if I had settled on the Leaf or the (overpriced, in my opinion) BMW i3. But if I need to go further, or even take a bit of a roadtrip, then I’ll have no limits to how far I can go, as long as I’m willing to put some gas in the tank on those rare occasions.
I did finally pull the trigger on the Volt, choosing to make a detailed selection of options from the dealer’s menu and have a car manufactured to my particular specs, rather than picking one off the lot.  For example, lots of the available inventory included the $500 in-car GPS option, but I’ve essentially given up using the GPS in my Audi in favor of running Waze on my iPhone, for its much better local traffic reporting. Since I saw no particular reason to change that behavior, why would I want to spend the money for a GPS I’d never use? Further, the Volt includes a Carplay-capable touchscreen, so if I really need to have the map in view, and I can stomach using Apple’s own Maps app (which is the only CarPlay compatible map option at the moment) I can still do that. I also wanted to load the car up with the optional safety and convenience features. The 2017 Volt has the many of the recent technical advancements, such as:

  • Automatic forward braking if it detects that a crash is imminent.
  • Obstacle and rear-crossing sensors
  • Lane-change and fast-approaching-from-the-rear warnings in the side mirrors.
  • Adaptive cruise control and computer-vision lane-keeping assistance. You barely have to steer on the highway at all if you’re not changing lanes, and the car will seamlessly maintain a steady distance behind the car in front of you if your cruise speed exceeds what the car in front is doing.
  • The usual ABS, traction control, and directional stability systems.
  • Auto-dimming bright headlights, again based on computer-vision detection of cars in front of you travelling either direction.

I picked up the car a few days ago and have put a bit over 100 miles on it since then, and I don’t regret it for a moment yet. No new surprises or disappointments in my choice have made themselves obvious yet, so I’m looking forward to several years of nearly emissionless driving. Bon voyage!