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How the Chevy Volt will be the future of driving, mosquito hawks and all

April 9, 2012

Living with a Chevrolet Volt
Living with a Chevrolet Volt

I'd been suffering through a particularly dispiriting run of luxury SUVs. I realize that's not something to normally complain about, but when guys start dropping new cars in your driveway every Wednesday morning, your conception of reality shifts. You find yourself critically evaluating big-booty "crossover" vehicles with overcomplicated control panels and drive modes that one in a hundred buyers even know exist, much less use regularly.

Yet all the big cars start to seem the same after a while: Indulgent, pretentious, and badly antiquated, like you're taking a triceratops for a spin just before the comet hits, or $4-a-gallon becomes permanent. That 17-mpg starts to feel like a burden. By Sunday night, the SUVs get parked in the driveway, and stay there until someone replaces them.

That's why it was such a relief when the Chevy Volt showed up two weeks ago, after a run of particularly bad press. We were damn glad to see it enter our lives, however briefly.

On the morning it appeared like a gift from enviro-Santa, my wife had to leave for work quickly. She teaches twice a week at a community college in the Hill Country, and has a 75-mile commute each way, which creates a perfect test for an electric car. In that, we were instantly disappointed. The Volt battery only carries a 34-mile charge, and they'd brought it down from Dallas, so the battery had drained before the Volt even cleared the Metroplex.

So my wife was off to Fort Hood, using the 39-mpg gasoline engine. Fifteen minutes later, as I sat at my desk, I got a text: "I want." A bit after that, she called. "It makes all these cool sounds inside," she said. "I feel like I'm in Star Trek." After weeks of testing cars that made us feel like soccer parents, we were suddenly driving on the Holodeck.

That's the cultural price you pay for an electric car.

Regina got home around 8 p.m. that night, having burned through less than four gallons of gas, not bad considering she'd gone 150-plus miles. It was time to break out the charge cord. Unfortunately, the cord is designed to accommodate people who live in modern houses. We live in an outdated, garageless rental. There were no outlets on the outside of the house, and the power cord didn't reach our front door. We had no extension cords.

We spent the next 45 minutes maneuvering the Volt as close to the house as we could. It inched backwards and forwards, finally parking up on a grass-free patch of dirt near the tree. After draping the power cord over a bush, we got a few feet through the front door. The nearest outlet was two-pronged, so that wouldn't work. Instead, we strung together two power strips. At last, finally, we were able to plug in the car. The three little square green lights came on the charger.  Fire danger be damned, the Volt had been activated.

Because of all this maneuvering, we'd had to prop open the front screen. A restless swarm of horrible moths, strange beetles, and the vile, broad-winged, many-legged creatures that my nine-year-old son refers to as "mosquito hawks" immediately inundated the house. For the next hour, as my wife and son shrieked like babies, I went around the living room, killing innocent bugs with shoes and rolled-up magazines. After three hours of suffering through the insect apocalypse, we went to check out the car, surely fully charged by now. We looked at the dashboard.

It had a charge of three miles. The display said that if we kept it plugged in overnight, and on through about noon the next day, the charge would be complete. Clearly, we had to try something else.

The next morning, after our pathetic charge got our kid to school and got us home, we tried running the cord through another window into my wife's office. This was part of the house's "addition," which was a bit newer than the rest of the crap-hole we called home. The charger didn't work, because the outlet wasn't grounded.

To avoid a neighborhood-consuming explosion, we ran the charger into the front again, inviting another swarming round of Bug Mitzvah guests. In order to accommodate the charger, my wife had to unplug some stuff. This time, the DirectTV box fell victim. It stayed unplugged into the evening, which meant it didn't record Community and 30 Rock. That's the cultural price you pay for an electric car.

For the weekend and beyond, I borrowed a couple of extension cords from my neighbor, which meant we were able to run the charger around to the back of the house. The car still charged slowly. You need a 240-volt outlet, not a 120-volt one, for any kind of charging speed. But getting a 240-volt outlet in this house would be like asking my landlady to install a living-room ceiling fan that didn't act like it was about to fly off its moorings at any second. It's not going to happen.

Driving the Volt felt like a privileged glimpse into the future

I found myself growing angry. Not at the Volt, because it didn't know better, but at the world that refused to accommodate itself to a clearly more fuel-efficient reality. I wondered why there weren't electric-car charging stations everywhere. The only ones I could find were at Whole Foods and at a federal office building, neither of which were on my daily rounds. Regular-guy houses in regular-guy neighborhoods like mine didn't have a chance.

A Reuters article recently called electric cars "really interesting toys for very, very rich people," but that didn't seem accurate. The Volt retails at $40,000 and change. That's not a middle-class price point at the moment. But it is an upper-middle-class one, and upper-middle-class people are the ones who're buying most of the gas-hogging SUVs that are the explicit enemy of cars like the Volt. The current financial struggles of the electric car started to seem less like a rejection of the cars themselves and more like a lack of political will. We need to praise electric cars as the awesome heralds of change that they are, not mock because the world hasn't caught up yet.

If the Volt were somehow lesser than gas-powered cars or conventional hybrids, I might understand. But it drives like an ace, nimble, fun, intuitive, and downright zippy when necessary. The Volt is compact inside, but never uncomfortable, and it provides the quietest ride of any car I've ever driven, including the Prius. In fact, it's better than the Prius in almost every way.

The Volt felt mature and responsible, though it wasn't the most fun I'd ever had behind the wheel. I never took it above 80, but when do you ever have to take any car over 80? Still, my wife's initial assessment had been right. Driving the Volt felt like a privileged glimpse into the future, when cars are efficient utilities, not surrogates for declining male libidos or shallow reflections of even shallower personalities.

We had the Volt for a week. After our initial power-outlet struggles, we kept it charged the rest of the time. Overall, we averaged 71 MPG. We spent 15 bucks worth of gas, and that's only because it came to us with an empty battery. Then dawned the sad Wednesday morning when we had to give it up. Suddenly a lovely chocolate brown Cadillac SRX, with an average 17 MPG rating, sat in its place.

It's a strange moment when someone gives you a free top-of-the-line Cadillac for the week and you're disappointed. But after the Volt, the SRX felt like going backwards. My son liked the Caddy, though.

It had TV screens in the backseat.