Timing, as they say in the watch business, is everything.
In the case of this year’s Ward’s 10 Best Engines testing, the Chevrolet Volt had the good fortune of arriving at our offices in mid-November, the day after we finished evaluating the Nissan Leaf electric vehicle.
Don’t get the wrong impression. Our time with the Leaf was uplifting and positive enough to warrant placement on this year’s list.
But some of us had limited exposure to the strange new world of electric vehicles, so we needed to adjust our thinking about automobiles and how they work. We needed to be reborn, baptized at the altar of electrification and cleansed of our gasoline-fueled sins.
There were white-knuckled moments in the Leaf for certain Ward’s editors who couldn’t quite understand how 2 linear miles (3.2 km) can consume 10 miles (16 km) worth of electricity.
Yes, range anxiety is a hurdle taller than a high-tension wire that Americans must clear if the era of EVs is expected to have any legs.
And for that reason, the Volt’s propulsion system is a magnificent achievement that marries the best attributes of all-electric vehicles with those of fun-to-drive, fuel-efficient gasoline cars.
Sometimes Ward’s editors debate passionately whether an engine belongs on the list. Not true for the Volt. Everyone recognizes what a game-changer it is.
Sure, the staff had questions when the Volt first arrived: Is it easy to charge and how long does it take? Is the electric range long enough for me to get home and back? Can Ward’s purchase a AAA membership for roadside assistance?
Consumers will have similar questions.
For instance, it takes 10 hours with a standard 120V wall socket to fully charge the lithium-ion battery when depleted, and four hours with a dedicated 240V charging dock, to achieve an all-electric range of between 25 and 50 miles (40-80 km). Is it smart to spend a couple grand for the dedicated charger?
Every consumer will answer this question differently. For instance, someone with a short commute who wants to minimize fuel consumption should find it worthwhile.
But someone with a longer drive and more unexpected destinations is bound to outrun the electric range on a regular basis. That’s fine because the 1.4L 4-cyl. engine will provide all the power necessary, so long as gasoline is available.
Which brings us to a downside for the Volt: Once the gas engine kicks on, fuel economy falls. A 332-mile (534-km) 1-day trip to central Michigan with a full battery provided 26.2 miles (42 km) of electric range, and the gasoline engine provided energy for the rest of the way.
At the end of the trip, the combined fuel economy was 43.8 mpg (5.4 L/100 km), below the EPA rating for a Toyota Prius. The best way to reap the benefits of a $41,000 investment in the Volt (minus a $7,500 federal tax credit) is to run it in electric mode as often as possible.
In the event the Volt’s engine almost never runs, the vehicle computer sends a signal to start the engine and periodically burn off fuel in the tank, about once every six months, regardless of the state of charge for the battery.
Propelling the Volt in four distinct driving modes requires an elaborate orchestration of pistons, electrical pulses, three clutches, a planetary gearset, a fixed gearset, an inverter, two electric motors and 435 lbs. (198 kg) worth of batteries.
Despite the complexity and the seamless switching between driving modes, it’s all utterly transparent to the driver. Torque hits the pavement smoothly and quickly, whether it comes from electricity or internal combustion.
The Volt represents disruptive technology because it shifts the emphasis away from only looking at better batteries as a route to EV viability, and forces everyone to look at new solutions.
GM deserves credit for understanding early on that EVs might be popular with a segment of the buying public, but an EV with a range-extended gasoline engine that doesn’t have to consume any petroleum at all is much more practical and should attract a wider audience.
Not bad for an auto maker that a little over a year ago was stuck at the intersection of Flat and Broke.
Ward's 10 Best Engines is a copyright of Penton Media Inc. Commercial references to the program and/or awards are prohibited without prior permission of Ward's Automotive Group.