Thursday, October 20, 2011

Vaulted into the Future via a 2012 Volt

Disclosure: I was provided a $5 gift card to a local coffee shop for test driving the Volt, the same incentive provided all others who test drove this same Volt during the month of October.

I test drove a 2012 Volt on Wednesday, and I swear the car made me smarter somehow. Thank you, Lichtsinn Motors, for a driving experience I hope to enjoy as an owner one day.

Keeping the Volt’s spinning green-leaf circle centered on its efficiency target became my new way to drive. Part overachiever and part video game competitor, I wanted to drive better, and that happy spinning green ball let me know when I was in the efficiency zone. For most of my time in the Volt, I was. Whether accelerating or decelerating, I felt in sync with the car and proud, even, of the efficient way we glided to our destination together.

Smooth, quiet, comfortable and, yes, capable of impressive speed and power on the freeway, the Volt gave me a glimpse of my future. At least that’s what I said to my husband, Mark. My actual words were: “This is our future. Now, how do we afford it?”

If I had any doubt about the Volt’s futuristic role, the newest driver in our family, our 16-year-old son, Skye, blew it away. He slid into the driver’s seat with a huge smile and a “ha-ha” type of masculine giggle. Taking the steering wheel into his hands, he looked at me with pure delight and declared: “This is the future.”

So it is.

And I like this version of the future. Very much so.

From the Jetson-like sounds of the “power on” function to the near whisper of the motor, I took in the multi-sensory experience of the Volt as much as possible. I drove it on quick errands around town and then rode as a passenger on a date with my husband. City driving, highway driving – regardless of circumstance – the Volt felt more like a companion on a mission than a mode of transportation. We had places to go and a way to get there more efficiently than we ever had before. Our family's biggest hold up: Our oldest son, Stross, uses a wheelchair, and this hybrid vehicle simply isn't large enough for us.

What – specifically – I liked:

Green Leaf Circle – I have already gushed about that. Need I say more? Be assured it wasn’t a distraction. Its location by the speedometer made it as easy to keep track of as my speed.
Power Flow and Efficiency Screens – I absolutely loved keeping track of whether I was using battery power or engine power or if the regen battery power was at work. And between stops, I regularly checked to see my efficiency ratings and mpg, amazed at how little fuel I was consuming. I would love finding out if the novelty of this ever wears off. I hope not.
Speed – Both Mark and I were pleasantly surprised at the Volt’s speed and power. And we both had to remind ourselves to keep checking our speed. Because the Volt runs so quietly, it’s easy to accelerate past the speed limit without hearing that you have asked the engine to go faster. Gliding. That’s what I kept thinking. I am gliding more than driving. As I said earlier, I felt at one with the car.
Braking – Not sure what I expected about the feel of the braking system, but I liked it. Gentle to the touch when decelerating with just the right amount of tension when I needed a fast response; and, when I needed my brakes to avoid a driver who was turning through an intersection on a red light, I got them. Confidently so.
Seating (front) – Mark and I both enjoyed the comfortable bucket seating and legroom of the passenger and driver front seats. I would describe it as a nice mix of sports car and sedan styling.
XM Satellite Radio – I am a news junkie, so having CNN inside the car was a treat. Same for the MLB Network. We were able to catch the last innings of the first game of the World Series on our way home last night. (Congratulations, Cardinals!) Our sons had their own favorite channels, of course. (And, no, they were not on our date.)
Keyless entry – I really enjoyed being able to walk away from the car and then approach it again - locking and unlocking with the mere push of a button. As long as the key fob was as near as my purse or pocket, I was good to go. Who wants to dig keys from the bottom of their purse on a cold day, anyway? Wonderful feature!
iPad/iPod Compatibility – I was treated to one of my husband’s playlists from his iPad for our date. Nothing helps make a car feel like it belongs to you more quickly than having it play music of your choosing. What a treat.
Bluetooth – I ran out of time to check out the Bluetooth function but already believe I would like it.

What – specifically – I hope gets improved in 2013:

Touch Screen Console – I would love to see this become more like an iPad with screens that scrolled with a touch. The buttons on the Driver Information Console already feel outdated despite their clean and aesthetically pleasing design. I got an iPad a few months ago and found myself wanting to scroll to the desired screen rather than remember the exact touch area or button. Touch scrolling would greatly improve the driving experience while reducing potential distractions.
Headlamps on Dim – The dim setting for the headlamps has a distinct and low sightline horizon. At night I kept feeling like I needed to duck my head lower to see farther. I also found myself looking forward to opportunities to return the lamps to bright.
Seating (back) – More room is needed for back seat passengers somehow. Mark, at 6’ 2”, had a claustrophobic moment. His head had to be positioned inside the rear window bay, and his legs soon felt cramped. He tolerated a drive around the block, but after few minutes in park, he was very ready to get out, and – unfortunately for him – I had yet to learn how to override the child safety locks. Rather than searching the console, I got out of the parked car and ran to free him. I can’t imagine him willingly sitting there again anytime soon. My 5’ 11” teen tolerated the back a bit better, but only because he wasn’t claustrophobic, merely cramped.
GPS – The system was easy to use but when I headed out on well-traveled back roads, it didn’t know where I was. This issue is common with GPS, yet I dream of a day when updates occur automatically. Wouldn’t that be great?

Chevy Runs Deep
Chevy runs deep in our family. The car my dad learned to drive first was a beautiful black and white ’55 Chevy that his parents bought new. It was the car he and my mother used to bring me home from the hospital. My husband learned to drive in a ’78 El Camino his father purchased with only a few hundred miles on it. We drove away in that vehicle on our wedding night and now our 16-year-old drives it to school. A 2007 Uplander, now approaching 100,000 miles, is the workhorse for our family. It’s the vehicle best capable of carrying the four of us, our oldest son’s wheelchair and any cargo we might have. If hybrid technology came van-sized, we would aspire to own that vehicle.

A note about the Volt’s accessibility: The carriage height and front door openings on the Volt are wonderful for manual wheelchair transfers. Unfortunately, the only way for the wheelchair to be transported in the vehicle is with both back seats down, and the wheelchair folded in half. Even then, the lift height necessary to put it inside the rear hatch was a bit of a stretch for me – easier for my taller husband. Oddly, the Volt was comparable to our El Camino as a two-seater mode of transportation for Stross as a passenger. And while we – on rare and only in-town occasions – tether his chair in the open bed of the El Camino, the Volt made it possible for the wheelchair to ride enclosed. When we don’t need to take the whole family somewhere, the Volt would make a wonderful second car for our family. If you'd like Stross' positive take on it, just watch the video below. (I find his comment after his ride rather charming - and hopeful.)

During my test drive, I felt vaulted into the future somehow and found myself wishing the automotive industry’s transition to hybrid technology comes as surely as the broadcast industry’s transition to high definition. We are smarter now, capable of driving more efficiently than ever before. I eagerly wait for the day all our family’s vehicles are primarily battery powered. (Well, we will likely still have that ’78 El Camino, as some things are simply too deep to give up.) Until then, let’s start vaulting into the future, allowing cars like the Volt to get us there.

The 2012 Chevy Volt – It’s just a smarter way to drive.

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