When the Chevy Volt plug-in debuted in late 2010, talking heads speculated whether its alternative power train had launched a revolution or just added a new wrinkle to the green niche. Three years later, the answer is the latter.
You can thank $3.20-a-gallon gasoline for that.
Yet, like the muscle car market, the green car has become an important performance nook that every automaker must honor. You can thank today’s environmentally conscious consumer for that — and government rules requiring that, by 2025, autos average a quixotic 54.5 mpg (why not 100 mpg? Do I hear 150?) and that 15 percent of automakers’ California sales be zero-emission vehicles.
The green aisle — about 3 percent of vehicle sales — has been dominated by the Toyota Prius hybrid. But diesel and electric vehicles now challenge King Hybrid’s fuel-sipping supremacy. Both options are available in the U.S., and both are available from Chevrolet off the compact Chevy Cruze platform: the $40,000 Chevy Volt and the $28,000 Chevy Cruze Diesel.
Your intrepid auto critic set out to determine which car makes more sense for the eco-conscious. (WARNING: There will be math). Gentlemen, start your alternative engines!
The Chevy Volt
A Michigan winter is a good challenge for a battery-powered car. Batteries detest cold, whether it’s the common lead-acid engine starter or the big lithium-ion power pack that motivates the Volt. GM claims the Volt is good for 50 miles on a full charge, but range plummets to around 25 miles on a sub-freezing December day.
But if your commute to work is less than 25 miles, so what?
“For the Volt to work, your life has to be set up for it,” says Devin Scillian, WDIV-TV news anchor, best-selling author, and Chevy Volt evangelist. “And my life is set up for it.”
“I’m 11 miles from work,” says Devin, who lives in Grosse Pointe and broadcasts from downtown Detroit. “I just drive down Jefferson Avenue. I go to work and plug in. I go back home and plug in. I thought it would be a pain to plug in. But you think the way modern life works. I plug in my computer, my iPhone, my iPad. ... It’s just one more thing to plug in.”
Devin gets 42 miles per charge in the summer months, 25 in the winter (the same number I recorded commuting down the Lodge). With 40,000 miles on the odometer, he has averaged 190 mpg. Of course, all that mileage isn’t just on Jefferson. With an electric-range extender, as GM puts it, the Volt seamlessly switches over to its 1.4-liter gas engine when Devin takes it on long road trips to, say, Mackinac Island. The resulting lack of range anxiety is what separates the Chevy from its electric peers and makes it more than an urban taxi.
Both the Diesel (300 pounds) and the EV (575) are heavier than the base Cruze, with the Volt’s battery alone adding an additional 435 pounds. Sitting in the floor of the car, the T-shaped battery splits the front and rear seats, making it a four-seater, a disadvantage compared to the Cruze’s traditional five-passenger mode. But it also gives the electric a 2-inch lower center of gravity, making the car surprisingly nimble in twisty bits. (A word on carbon footprint while we’re talking battery versus diesel. Academic studies determine it’s a non-factor given that, over the life cycle of an EV, the energy needed to produce lithium batteries cancels out their gas emissions savings).
The Volt returns impressive mileage numbers when driven as a pure EV. But it demands a committed owner.
Using the standard, 120-volt outlet in my garage, I typically used 11 kilowatt hours to recharge the Volt’s battery at a cost of 15 cents per kWh. Assuming an average range of 35 miles on a charge, that’s 4.7 cents a mile — or less than half the cost of the Cruze Diesel’s 11 cents a mile (diesel fuel: a pricey $3.80 a gallon), a savings of $940 at an average 15,000 miles a year.
Bottom line? After pocketing the $7,500 federal electric vehicle tax credit, the Volt still costs $5,000 more than the Cruze Diesel, meaning it’ll take five years before you make back the price premium — or 80,000 miles (and well within GM’s eight years/100,000 mile battery warranty).
But really, who’s counting? After all, Volt buyers are likely to prefer the plug-in for its unique feel and brand image. So here’s a word of advice for Volt 2.0: More sex appeal, please. It looks too much like, well, a Chevy. Apply the Volt’s cool, interior vibe to its exterior. Give the Volt an extreme makeover — think its striking, overseas Opel Ampera twin — and Devin’s wife will stop calling it “boring.”
Chevy Cruze Diesel
I also commute downtown — but from 24 miles away in Oakland County. And my outdoor parking space doesn’t come with a charging station. And even if it did, I am in and out of the office, meaning I spent as much time on my test Volt’s gas engine as I did on the battery, followed by nine to 14-hour charges every night.
For me, the Cruze Diesel would be less hassle.
Yes, diesel power too requires research on where you can fill up in the metro area. But averaging 35 mpg with its big 15.6 gallon tank, my Cruze would travel more than 500 miles before refueling. And on interstate hauls, diesel fuel is as common as truck stops.
The Volt is also decidedly less cool when the battery dissipates. Its gas assist engine is buzzy, while the Cruze’s turbo diesel, courtesy of GM’s Opel shop, runs quietly — though the familiar wokka-wokka diesel sound returns at idle. And that snap-your-head-back, instant electric acceleration the Volt boasts? Ditto the diesel. In fact, I found myself switching to the TD automatic’s manual shifter option (it only comes in automatic) to maximize the diesel’s sporty, instant torque acceleration.
Volt or Cruze Diesel?
Both cars know their well-fed, green audience. They are dressed to the nines in luxury gadgetry from heated seats to Bluetooth connectivity to 360-degree safety monitoring. Their instrument panels nanny you on best green behavior. A green ball on the Volt’s dash indicates your driving efficiency. The Diesel’s “Eco” indicator monitors your mpg — and rewards “Best score” for a trip (my best: 47.9). Which car suits you depends on your lifestyle: The Volt favors the urban commuter, the less-flashy Diesel the highway commuter.
But about that math ...
For pure efficiency, consider the base, gas-powered, 27 mpg Chevy Cruze LS at just $19,500. At current fuel prices, it would take 68 years to make back the Diesel’s $6,500 price premium over the LS, or 13 years to make back the Volt’s premium.
“Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated,” Mark Twain once reportedly quipped. The same might be said of the internal combustion engine.
2014 CHEVY CRUZE DIESEL
Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, five-passenger, four-door luxury sedan
Price: $24,885 base ($28,105 as tested)
Engine type: 2.0-liter, double overhead cam, 16-valve, 4-cylinder turbo diesel
Power: 140 horsepower, 258 pound-feet of torque
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Performance: 0-60 mpg, 8.1 seconds (Car & Driver); 125 mph top speed
Weight: 3,475 pounds
Fuel economy: EPA 27 mpg city / 46 mpg highway
Highs: Turbo-diesel power, 500-plus mile range on one tank
Lows: High cost of diesel fuel, high sticker price
Find Henry Payne at firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter @HenryEPayne