Sunday, December 1, 2013

Scarlet's new Chevy Volt

Anyone who lives in Santa Clara really ought to have an electric car. Santa Clara's municipal electric utility, Silicon Valley Power has maybe the cheapest rates in the entire state. The upper tier of 10.2 ¢/kW-hr equates to around $3.40 per gallon of gas equivalent. And, of course, an electric car is about 3 times more efficient than a gasoline car.

But unless you buy a Tesla, it's impractical (at least today) for a family to do entirely without gasoline power. So when it came time to trade in Scarlet's car, we looked purely at plug-in hybrids. Unfortunately, that cuts way down on the choices. It amounts to choosing between Chevy, Toyota and Ford. We wound up going with the 2014 Chevrolet Volt. We went with the cheapest model, which was around $7500 (or so) less than the tricked out version.

What we miss with the lower model is some of the new high tech driving stuff, like parking assist, lane departure warning and (I think) radar assisted cruise control and built-in navigation. The Volt does have OnStar assisted turn-by-turn navigation, but the way that works is that they download the directions as a set of GPS waypoints. The car doesn't actually have a map at all. If you go off-route far enough, it tells you that you need to phone home again to get updated routing. It's good in a pinch, but if you want an actual map, you need to use your phone.

I took a trip to San Francisco. Highway driving is where EVs and Hybrids actually don't do so well. 11 kW-hr of electricity took me just under 30 miles at 75 mi/hr, and the gasoline engine was able to get around 32 mi/gal after that. Not bad, and it sets expectations for the occasional road trip. But apart from those road trips, it's quite likely that Scarlet won't use a drop of fuel, and will get more like 3 mi/kW-hr or so (the equivalent of around 100 mi/gal), again, at a "fuel" cost of under $3.50/"gal".

Oddly, the cabin is configured as 4 bucket seats. Where normally you'd be able to squeeze 3 small folks into the back seat, that's not an option here. However,  the back seat does come with a center console of a sort, and the hatchback area is opened to the back seat. There's also power outlets for both rows of seats, as well as a power port in a little cubby on top of the dashboard (I guess for standalone GPS units?), and the front also has a USB jack nearby used for connecting to the entertainment system (and, yes, it does charge an iPhone with the Lightning cable). Connected that way, it can also control Pandora running on the phone, which is quite nice. Siri works more or less as you'd expect (via Bluetooth), but you must engage her by using the home button on the phone.

I'm not sure how I feel about OnStar. They can place hands-free phone calls for you, but they charge extra for that, and you're not using your phone to make the call (so I'm not sure what the caller ID shows for the people you call), so we didn't opt for that. You can ask them to send down navigation routes, but there's no map. They also have an emergency response system built-in, so they know when the airbags deploy and stuff like that.

The efficiency displays are slightly disingenuous, since they talk about an overall miles/gallon, which they calculate by dividing the odometer by the amount of actual gasoline used. The implication there is that the electricity you "pour" into the car has no cost, which isn't really accurate. Chevrolet salesmen perpetuate this little bit of faulty arithmetic as well. It's true that (at least today) many public charging stations are free, but that's certainly not the case for charging at home.

The only other gotcha we ran into was that by default the Volt is set for a "charging cable theft alarm." What that means is that if you disconnect the J1772 plug without the key being nearby the car alarm will go off. That happened at 10 PM the first night when I moved the plug to the other car, and I turned that nonsense right the heck off.

Anyway, so far it's going pretty well.

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