To Tahoe and Back in My Chevy Volt
By Felix Kramer
For the past three weeks, driving in my family's new Chevy Volt, I've had a sense of unreality -- I'm driving an official mass-produced version of the car I've been talking about for almost 10 years. What a welcome sensation! This week, I got around to giving it a workout. We at CalCars have been saying that plug-in hybrids combine the "best of both worlds" in a single car -- it's electric for local and commuter driving, but if you ever need to go a thousand miles, you can do it with no extra planning. (Of course, for two-car families, it's a no-brainer that the second car can be a 100-mile range EV -- that's why we're also getting a Nissan Leaf.) But what's it like to use the Volt to go the distance? I've found out -- and in the process, made a little history.
I love travelling to Lake Tahoe -- a spectacular four-season destination that's 235 miles from where I live. Since 2006, my converted Prius has made the trip often. Its large 100+MPG signs got lots of attention when the Hyatt at Incline Village rolled out a short red carpet to cover an extension cord so I could park and charge at the front entrance. I was invited to showcase it at the National Cross Country Junior Olympics in 2009 and at Earth Day at Squaw Valley in 2010.
Among Tahoe residents and visitors, I found a level of interest and enthusiasm as high as I've ever seen in Silicon Valley -- these are people whose SUVs have "Keep Tahoe Blue" stickers. And frustration: everyone asked, "when can I get a four-wheel drive that plugs in?" (More about that later.)
So I couldn't wait to show up with the first Volt. It was only after I got to Northstar-At-Tahoe on Sunday night that I realized I'd made a bit of history. As far as I know, my car became the first-ever mass-produced plug-in vehicle to travel 225 miles from the Bay Area to Tahoe WITHOUT REFUELING along the way. (Though the driver stopped to stretch his legs and refuel his mug.)
I checked around to validate that claim. The most likely predecessor was Tesla, with a 240-mile range -- but that can't include a climb over Donner Pass at 7,085 feet. Distance specialist Chad Schwitters says his Tesla uses about 6.5 miles per thousand feet -- see his informative chart on Tesla's range (which doesn't show elevation effects). And I confirmed that while Roadsters have made the drive, they've all stopped to charge along the way. That infrastructure is still in development, especially for the Sacramento-Reno route.
What are the numbers attached to my new record? I knew I was going to have to sacrifice: the day would come when the Volt would no longer be a 100+MPG car for me. As I left, I photographed with some regret my display showing 111.9 MPG for 806.5 miles driven mostly in the Bay Area. (Until Sunday, the longest leg was from Novato Chevy to my home after I, PHEV inventor Andy Frank, and CalCars Technology Lead Ron Gremban celebrated the arrival of our cars .)
With a nearly full tank of gas, I was out of electricity on the Oakland Bay Bridge, 35 miles from Redwood City. I noticed the transition only because I was watching the displays, and kept going. With cruise control set at 66MPH and no traffic, travelling on gas the rest of the way, I averaged 35.8 MPG for the 225.7 miles. (That included zooming up the steep climb on I-80 at full speed in mountain mode.)
Pulling into Northstar, my new lifetime results for 998 miles was a still-respectable 73.9 MPG.
As I plugged in to the 120-volt outlet at Northstar Lodge - Hyatt Residence Club I've been using for my Prius, I thought about my return trip Thursday.
I had 59 miles of gasoline left. Combined with 35 miles from a full battery, plus about 25 miles I'll get from regeneration driving back down from the Sierras, I'll easily slide back to Auburn for lower-priced gas for the Volt and an Ikedas blueberry pie for me. I'll share the results of the return leg on Saturday at the Silicon Valley Electric Auto Association meeting.
What can we conclude, and what's ahead for the Volt? It's a real achievement to get 35.8 MPG for a car that's 100% electric most of the time. The boost from the first the electric miles is more than offset by the 8,000 feet of total elevation. On the same trip, a Prius might get 40-45 MPG -- but the Prius wouldn't give you the local EV driving.
Most of GM's engineering focus so far was to maximize EV performance. And to get the car to market by the promised November 2010 date, it used an Austrian-built 1.4L engine that's essentially off the shelf. CalCars Technology Lead Ron Gremban points out that Toyota improved MPG was able to wring out an EPA combined 5MPG improvement from the first to the second generation Prius. He expects that the second-generation Volt, using efficiency optimization and a custom-designed engine could similarly improve performance.
I enjoyed all-electric drives over Brockway Summit to Kings Beach at Lake Tahoe, and an evening opportunity to show off the car in Truckee to the Board of Directors of the Sierra Green Building Council and the organizers of Tahoe Expo which hopes to showcase plug-in vehicles and other green solutions at an event in September. Sadly, I still don't have an answer for those who want a vehicle they can use year-round on snowy, icy roads. The new wave of plug-in vehicles is starting to include SUVs, crossovers, and minivans from Ford, GM, and Toyota, but we're probably still a few years away from 4WD. Still, for families that have more than one car, a Volt or a Leaf can already make sense in the Sierras for more than half a year -- longer, as in my case, if I'm willing to use snow cables from time to time.
What I consider most amazing is that we're actually now talking so specifically about who's the best customer for the first plug-ins, and what the carmakers need to build for those with specific needs who want to (as I've always though the saying should go) "eat their cake and have it too."
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