On Tuesday General Motors issued an official release updating specs for the much anticipated Chevrolet Volt. One figure jumped off the page; average fuel-economy for city driving would be an EPA-estimated 230 miles per gallon.
Right now the mileage wars are being won by the Honda Insight and Toyota Prius which, based on driving style, boast average fuel-economy of 50 to 60 miles per gallon. In "real world" driving conditions, the Volt would at least double and perhaps even triple its best competition.
Perhaps the most impressive feature of the Chevy Volt is its drive-train. The motor is fully electric and the car carries a gas-powered electrical generator to replenish the battery rather than turn the wheels. As a result, a commuter could possibly drive 40 miles without ever using any gasoline.
For this reason, rather than being dubbed simply a "hybrid car," the Volt is an "Extended Range Electric Vehicle" or EREV.
General Motors CEO Fritz Henderson and Vice-chairman Bob Lutz are banking on the Volt being the first in a long line of EREVs which will revolutionize the American auto market. Lutz appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman in May showcasing the production model which is expected to be released in late 2010.
The Volt will likely get stiff competition from overseas. Last week Nissan announced the fully electric Nissan Leaf, a four door mid-sized sedan with a zero-emission electric drive-train.
The question that remains is whether or not consumers will choose the less expensive fully electric car, or the most expensive vehicle that carries an on-board generator.
The problem with the Leaf, or with any all-electric vehicle such as the Tesla Roadster or Model S, is what to do should the battery run out. The new Model S has best-in-class trunk space to carry an extra battery pack or two. The manufacturer claims that these can quickly be replaced in 5 minutes. The Leaf may have similar features.
The Volt on the other hand, does not have this drawback. If the battery falls below a 30 percent charge the generator turns on to maintain that 30 percent. If the 1.4 liter generator runs out of fuel you will have ample battery life to make it to the nearest gas station and refuel.
There are some drawbacks to the Chevy Volt, particularly its price tag. Lutz has already stated that GM will lose money on the first lines of Volts, and even after absorbing the production costs he expects consumers to pay roughly $32,500 after government rebates are added on.
Another drawback could be availability. In the first few model years GM only expects to roll out a few thousand cars - which will be assembled in the United States. By comparison Toyota, despite a falling U.S. market, sells several thousand Prius models every month.
The Volt alone will not save Detroit or General Motors, but the buzz it is creating may save the American auto industry. Ford has already put together a competitor to the Volt, and Chrysler is actively working on doing the same.
With the prospect of massive increases in oil prices in the near future, Americans will quickly turn to these Extended Range vehicles. Hopefully, domestic automakers can get enough of a push to capture that burgeoning market.