Posted by: bmeverett | August 12, 2009

The Chevy Volt Revisited

This is the second in an endless series of futile attempts to bring some sanity to the discussion of the famous Chevy Volt. See my January 18 posting for the first article.
GM unveiled (again) its Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid scheduled to be in show rooms in 2011. GM’s press release is entitled “Chevrolet Volt Expects 230 mpg in City Driving.” The New York Times dutifully reported this event with the headline “GM Puts Volt’s Mileage in Triple Digits.” You can look in vain through either document for any acknowledgment that the 230 mpg number is meaningless, since it measures only the amount of gasoline the car consumes, not the amount of total energy the car consumes. What would happen if Volkswagen announced a diesel model with the headline “The new Volkwagen Jetta Expects Infinite Fuel Mileage”? Why not, since it uses no gasoline at all?
Let’s do this calculation properly. Assume that a new Chevy Volt will run 9,000 miles a year on electricity and 3,000 miles on gasoline and that it gets 50 mpg when the electric engine is running and uses 0.3 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity in all-electric mode. The Volt would therefore use 60 gallons of gasoline and 2,700 kWh of electricity. Transmission and distribution consume about 10% of electricity produced, so the power companies would have to generate 3,000 kWh of electricity. High-tech combined-cycle power plants require about 6,800 British Thermal Units (Btus) of energy per kWh or 17.4 million Btus of natural gas to supply the annual needs of each Volt – equivalent to about 140 gallons of gasoline. Total fuel consumption for the Volt is therefore equivalent to about 200 gallons of gasoline, divided by 12,000 miles equals 60 mpg. Nice, but not triple digits and certainly not 230 mpg.
If the electricity is generated by coal, which is a much less efficient power generation fuel, the Volt would average 43 mpg.
Compare that with a Toyota Prius which uses only gasoline and gets 51 mpg with proven technology. You might get better efficiency with the Volt, but then again you might not. GM has indicated, however, that the Volt will initially cost about $40,000 while a Prius II costs only $22,000. Granted there will be a $7,500 tax credit for purchasing a Volt, but even with this credit, you couldn’t make up this difference in cost, even if the Volt used no fuel at all.
The US Environmental Protection Agency, which is supposed to spend your money to protect your environment, “does applaud GM’s commitment to designing and building the car of the future – an American-made car that will save families money, significantly reduce our dependence on foreign oil and create good-paying American jobs.” Nice work by the EPA. In fact, the Volt will do none of these things.
So let’s review the bidding. GM, which has been hemorrhaging money for years, wants to get back in the black by producing a high-tech marvel that is totally uncompetitive in terms of cost with models already on the market. Why are they doing this? Because it’s far more important to GM’s management to impress their Congressional overseers with their cool technology than it is to sell products profitably in the marketplace. In other words, GM will keep losing money, but Congress will be more inclined to keep funding the losses. Enjoy.



  1. The 2010 Chevy Volt is bound to be a huge hit in the US. It looks great ( for reference) and will be affordable.

    • Re the previous comment, the Chevy Volt may look great, but it is way too expensive to appeal to the average consumer. GM plans to produce 45,000 in 2012 – about 0.3% of US car production. These vehicles will be sold to wealthy gadgeteers under heavy taxpayer subsidy.

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