Is the Chevy Volt Really a Fit for You?

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Photo: General Motors

Many greenies opt for a car-free lifestyle to minimize their footprints. But for those living in rural or suburban areas, life without a car isn’t always feasible.

Plug-in hybrids are the next wave of eco vehicles that allow earth-friendly drivers to minimize emissions without making changes to their daily routines. When considering buying a new hybrid, most people think of popular models like the Prius first.

But U.S. auto giant General Motors is hailing its new flagship plug-in, the Chevrolet Volt, as a different kind of hybrid that allows drivers to travel longer distances without gas. So, what makes the Volt different from other hybrids? How does it work? And is it really better for the environment? Let’s take a look inside the 2012 Chevy Volt and find out the answers.

How the engine works

The Chevy Volt, which first hit the auto market earlier this year, is an “extended-range” electric car. It can travel 25 to 50 miles without using any gasoline – making it ideal for short trips.

Each car is equipped with a large lithium-ion battery – similar to those used in laptops and cell phones – that stores power from home electric outlets. The battery is connected to an electric motor, which directly propels the car.

Unlike other hybrids on the market, known as “parallel hybrids,” the Volt doesn’t use a gas engine to power the car at all. Parallel hybrids use a small electric engine for low-speed driving but switch over to a standard gasoline engine for acceleration and faster driving, with the electric motor providing enhancement.

The Volt is known as a “series” vehicle, which means only the electric motor powers the car at all times. Once the battery is out of power, an on-board gasoline generator converts gas into electricity and transfers power to the electric motor.

A little like a parallel hybrid, the engine does help to spin the wheels after the battery is depleted, which GM engineers say increases efficiency by 10 to 15 percent.

Eco benefits

Since the Volt’s electric motor can still power the car during acceleration and high-speed driving, the first 25 to 50 miles of your trip will be gasoline-free.

For longer trips, the EPA estimates that the Volt can travel an additional 344 miles on a full tank (or 9.3 gallons) of gas. To further optimize fuel efficiency, the Volt is also equipped with regenerative braking – which means that when the car slows, the kinetic or motion-based energy is recaptured as electricity stored in the battery.

Overall, the EPA estimates that the Volt gets about 37 miles per gallon when using the gasoline generator, which is about the same as standard fuel-efficient cars. But if you drive less than 50 miles per day, it could be weeks or even months before you see a gas station.

Recycled parts

The eco benefits of the Chevy Volt go beyond fuel efficiency. Many of the parts under the car’s hood are actually made from waste generated from cleaning up the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Last year, GM announced plans to use 227 miles of oil-soaked booms from the spill cleanup to make parts for the Volt. That amounts to a whopping 100,000 pounds of oil-soaked plastic that would otherwise be landfilled or burned.

Plastic boom material was used to create parts to deflect air around the vehicle’s radiators, which allows the battery and on-board gasoline generator to run efficiently in extreme weather conditions.

Boom material will be used in about a quarter of each part, mixed with recycled tires, reused plastics and polymers, GM told The Los Angeles Times in December 2010.

Charging up

The Volt can be charged at any standard home outlet. For 120-volt home outlets, the Volt can take up 10 hours to fully charge. So, GM engineers suggest charging the car overnight.

If you have access to a 240-volt outlet, it will only take about four hours to charge up your Volt. While it may seem like the savings in gas will be cancelled out by all that electricity you’re using to charge the car, the Volt sucks up far less energy than you’d think.

With current average U.S. electric rates, engineers estimate that it will take about $1.50 in energy costs to power the Volt each day, which amounts to far fewer carbon emissions and far less money than driving a gas-powered vehicle.

Can I afford it?

The $41,000 price-tag of the 2012 Volt hardly makes it a car for tight budgets. But buyers will be entitled to a $7,500 tax credit for the first 200,000 vehicles sold, making it considerably more affordable.

If you’re thinking about buying a Volt, make sure you’re one of the first to get it by calling your local Chevrolet dealership. Ask about getting on a waiting list, and tell them you plan to apply for a tax credit.

If the cost of the Volt still has you on the fence, think of it this way – the savings in gas will offset higher vehicle costs within the first few years. The average American family spent about $368 per month on gas in 2011, according to a study conducted by the Oil Price Information Service for CNN Money.

So, if you drive less than 50 miles per day, you’ll save about $4,400 on gas every year, and charging up will only cost you about $550 per year – making the price of the Volt seem a little more reasonable.

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