Recently, before going to bed, I plugged in my cell phone, my laptop — and my car.
As co-writer of the St. Petersburg Times autos column, I had the opportunity to try out the new Chevrolet Volt. It's the much-hyped electric vehicle recently named the 2011 Car of the Year at the prestigious North American International Auto Show.
The Volt is different from other electric cars, like Nissan's equally new Leaf. The latter can go up to 100 miles before the question becomes: Where's the nearest outlet?
GM calls this "range anxiety,'' and says Volt drivers won't have the same worry.
The Volt can go but 35 miles on battery power. But studies say maybe three quarters of drivers have total commutes of less than 35 miles. They could plug in the Volt at night and never have to hit the pump.
For everyone else, the Volt has an extended-range mode, when a gas engine kicks in to recharge the electric motors, which can keep the car powered for about 300 miles.
In short, GM claims the Volt has the advantages of a pure electric car without the drawbacks.
For that, the Volt has earned praise from several automotive enthusiast magazines. One major voice of dissent came last week when the influential Consumer Reports asked whether the Volt made economic sense (MSRP of $40,280 before a federal tax credit of $7,500) and questioned its efficiency.
So what's the Volt like in real-world driving, and what do some of the Tampa Bay area's discerning observers think of a car that should be available here by the end of the year? On a recent Friday, a confluence of events gave me the opportunity to find out.
The battery icon on the Volt's digital dash shows an estimated 34-mile range when I back out of my garage in St. Petersburg. The odometer reads 1,365 miles. My destination is the Center for Urban Transportation Research, a USF think tank.
CUTR interim director Stephen L. Reich and spokesperson Janet Gillis are eager to see the Volt. They tell me the guest lecturer for the day's Engineering Expo is Daniel Sperling, author of Two Billion Cars: Driving Toward Sustainability. Sperling won't be available for our drive; according to Gillis, he has a Leaf on order.
11 a.m., Tampa
The campus is swarming with 16,000 middle and high school students for the Expo. The battery meter shows 16 miles of charge when Reich and Gillis get in and we take a brief ride off-campus. For someone who ponders how metro areas "sustain mobility," Reich seems reasonably impressed.
"It's a real car — it doesn't look like you're sacrificing anything," he says of the Volt's comfort and performance.
Reich also likes its "whiz-bang" — the Volt's twin 7-inch, high-tech displays that show everything from battery consumption to energy flow.
"There's enough technology in the display and the (instrument) panel," Reich says, "so it makes it look like you're driving something special."
On campus, Reich has me take the car up a narrow driveway to the CUTR building. It is clogged with young Expo-goers and Gillis gets out to clear the way. I'm surprised when several of the kids recognize the car: "Hey, that's the Volt. That's the car in the commercial."
Reich doesn't see the Volt and cars like it as a "silver bullet," but likens them to "silver birdshot" — one of many potential solutions to our reliance on gas.
Chevy estimates the charging cost of the Volt at about $1.50 per day, depending on local rates and other factors. Progress Energy's estimates are higher, but this much is certain: The cost is less than the rising price of gas.
For the record, the EPA estimates the Volt gets 37 mpg in combined city/highway driving and the equivalent of 93 mpg while on battery power.
Later, I find several kids and field-trip chaperones crowded around the Volt as if it were R2-D2. They pepper me with questions and ask me to lift the hood.
Stanton Cook, a 16-year-old from Plant City wearing a Pink Floyd T-shirt, says the Volt is a "cool car," but wants to know why it doesn't have "solar panels on top so you have a more passive charging system?"
I mumble something about weight and tell Stanton I'll have to ask a Chevy engineer.
Burton Krakow, a senior research scientist, walks up. He clutches the results of a new survey that doesn't rank the Volt among the Top 10 "greenest" cars (the Leaf was No. 2). He's eager to learn the methodology behind the rankings, and he asks some questions about the Volt. Krakow points out that the Volt is parked under a solar carport used by CUTR in the 1990s for electric-vehicle research. He says a public charging infrastructure should be a priority. Motorists, he says, "should be able to plug in wherever they park."
"This is an interim (step) at best," he says of the Volt.
A little later, on the interstate in Tampa, I run out of battery charge, which would be a problem if I were driving an all-electric car. But I suffer no range anxiety as the Volt shifts imperceptibly to its gas engine to generate electric power.
I look at the odometer. I've driven 41 miles. A few seconds later, a motorist in another lane beeps and gives me a thumps-up.
2 p.m., Pinellas Park
The Tampa Bay Automobile Museum, in the Gateway area of Pinellas, is home to several intimidating cars, and that's just in the parking lot. I spy a Maserati and a Porsche.
Susan Cerf, who does museum PR, greets me. She points out a 1971 Gregoire Electric, from France. It appears to be powered by several normal-sized car batteries. EV technology has come a long way. I show Susan the Volt as we wait for her father-in-law, museum founder Alain Cerf.
"Actually, I'm impressed with its sporty styling," Susan says.
When Alain joins us, I take him for a spin. He doesn't seem overly impressed, but that may be his Gallic demeanor.
He raises a common criticism of electric cars — you still have to burn fuel to charge it. "Same problem," he says, "you still have to make electricity."
But Alain's son, Olivier — who Susan, his wife, says is the real car guy — has some interesting observations for a man who appreciates European sports cars.
"It looks well-built," he says after sliding behind the wheel. "It doesn't look like the GM of the old days. The lines are nice — it looks like something I would buy."
6 p.m., St. Petersburg
So far, I've been surprised at the positive reception for the Volt, but if there is a hostile territory, then I'm headed for it. Biff Burger in St. Petersburg is the bay area's longtime version of Mel's Drive-In from American Graffiti.
The Friday night cruise-in is serious car country. Besides classics, there are street rods, drag cars and all manner of Detroit muscle. The Volt creeps silently into the restaurant's crowded parking lot amid the sound of revving engines until I find a busy corner near a '55 Chevy and a '70 Dodge Super Bee.
I park and, like the other hot-rodders, pop the hood. The smell of exhaust hangs in the air.
Despite the less-than-prime spot, the Volt draws its share of the curious. Most people seem familiar with it. The gearheads ask a lot of questions about how the power plant works and, of course, the price. When I mention that the gas engine powers a generator, more than one person remarks, "Oh, like a diesel train."
I offer to trade vehicles with the owner of the nearby '55 Chevy, Carlos Rios of St. Petersburg. He declines.
Rios tells me he got the Chevy in 1974 and has spent more than seven years and $25,000 to transform it into a street rod.
So he must hate the thought of an electric Chevy, right? No, but he does have a few reservations.
"I'd like to see 50 miles (on the battery alone)," he says, "especially with the economy."
That's kind of the way it goes — no one turns their nose up at the Volt or questions its place among the hot rods. Most like that it's an American brand. One person says he has nothing against electric cars but doesn't care for the hard sell we've been hearing on them.
Then there's Dennis St. Laurent, who says he's been coming to the cruise-in every Friday for 19 years.
"I hate to get away from gas," St. Laurent says. "I like the old muscle cars."
Looking at the Volt, he says: "I'll wait until people get more of them and see how they go — the charging and stuff."
• • •
The next day, I drive the Volt on some typical weekend chores — grocery shopping, taking my daughter to a babysitting gig and going out to dinner with my wife — that are all within its battery range. Before we go to bed, my wife asks what I'm sure automakers hope will become a common refrain:
"Did you remember to plug in the car?"