The Chevy Volt’s 40-mile Predicament

From its inception, the Chevy Volt was designed to travel 40 miles without using a drop of gasoline. General Motors drew the line in the sand, citing studies that show the majority of US drivers, on average, travel less than 40 miles per day. In a refrain repeated over and over again by GM executives, and bandied about in advertising, the company has held firm to its promise of 40 miles of electric driving before the small onboard engine would be called into service.

However, one year prior to its release, journalists are discovering that the Volt will fall short of the 40 miles of all-electric range under a number of conditions.

Edmunds’ John O’Dell yesterday took a brief test drive of the Volt, and grilled Volt Chief Engineer Andrew Farah. O’Dell discovered that the 2011 will indeed deliver 40 miles of battery-only range on the EPA city cycle, a driving circuit with an average speed of just under 20 mph. But the Volt’s battery range will be diminished under these conditions:

  • Aggressive acceleration
  • Sustain high-speed driving
  • Exceptionally hot or cold ambient temperatures
  • Driving in hilly or mountainous terrain

O’Dell writes, “If you pull out of the driveway with a full charge, hop on an uncrowded freeway and motor away at 65 miles an hour, you won’t get 40 miles on battery power alone.”

Does It Matter?

From the beginning, the 40-mile number seemed arbitrary. After all, how many Volt owners are going to complain if the engine comes on after 38 miles or 35 miles? The Chevy Volt is expected to be the only mainstream relatively affordable plug-in hybrid on the market—it goes on sale in late 2010—with anywhere near 40 miles of all-electric range for quite some time.

But if the Volt does fall short of 40 miles of electric range, and 35 or 30 miles proves to be enough for satisfied owners, it begs the question of how much all-electric range is needed after all. Earlier this year, researchers from Carnegie Melon University found that the extra cost and weight of batteries needed for 40 miles of all-electric range are cost-prohibitive. Researchers said, “Large-capacity plug-in hybrids sized for 40 or more miles of electric-only travel are not cost-effective in any scenario.”

The Volt is expected to cost about $40,000. Could GM reduce the cost of the Volt—and potentially sell more units maybe even at a profit—by downsizing the battery pack to allow for 30, 20, or even 10 miles of all-electric range? Does it strike a better balance between cost and EV-range to tap into gasoline when needed throughout the driving cycle—the “blended” approach expected from Ford and Toyota, as well as GM’s own future plug-in hybrid SUV? Or maybe those who must have a long all-electric range would be happy to pay $10,000 less and give up the ability to take their electric car on long-range trips? The Nissan Leaf is expected to sell in the low $30,000s and will never use a drop of gasoline, because it’s purely electric and doesn’t have a gas engine.

The new era of plug-in hybrids and electric cars will bring these questions and many more. Perhaps the biggest question—at least for GM one year before the release of the Chevy Volt—is whether or not it should continue to make the 40-mile claim when it might not be true for many of its owners.

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  • Stuart K Humpert

    What’s with the scolding over the 40 mile range claim – of course there will be variance just as there is a mpg variance with gas powered cars depending upon how fast and hard they are driven.

    I suspect it’s just SOP to bash GM, even though their Volt with its innovative drivetrain stands to make automotive history by being the first electric powered car to become established in the marketplace.

    Prove me wrong by similarly bashing Nissan for claiming its LEAF will go 100 miles between charges. I dare them to guarantee that claim with the heater turned on, much less travelling all day at 65mph.

    At least with GM’s Volt, drivers won’t be shackled down with range anxiety as with EV’s like the LEAF.

  • AP

    I would hope that only a few idiots would expect a car to have the same range regardless of weather or road conditions, or driving style. Gasoline-powered cars have most of the same effects.

  • RS

    What is the MPG in series hybrid mode? Consumers will be more likely to accept lower all electric range the greater the MPG running as a hybrid.

  • mulad

    GM is currently claiming that the overall range of the Volt will be around 340 miles with a full tank and a full charge. The tank is about 8 U.S. gallons.

    I believe it’s typical to claim fuel range based on a tank that’s been 90% depleted, so assuming that 40 miles will be powered by electricity and 7.2 gallons will be used to drive the car the other 300 miles, you’d be looking at 41.7 mpg. If you use 8 gallons to go 300 miles, it’d be 37.5 mpg. Around the fuel efficiency of a U.S.-market Jetta TDI.

    Originally when the Volt concept was announced, I believe they’d hoped for about 53 mpg according to computer models, but I imagine those were “CAFE mpgs” based off of the raw numbers you’d get off an EPA fuel economy test before the standard adjustments are put in (and are the numbers used to calculate fleet fuel economy). Real-world fuel economy is about 25-30% lower, which would put it around 37-40 mpg, so they’re probably hitting that target as well as could be expected.

  • Sam C

    Stop bashing GM and realize that they are breaking ground here! This is a new thought process in which the electric and gas motor are no longer both connected to the wheels as in previous inefficient designs. While they may have fell a few miles short, the battery has been designed to last for up to 10 years by controlling the battery level and keeping it within the 25%-85% charged range.

    Everybody needs to look at the bigger picture here. GM is doing something different and revolutionary, I feel very good about America when we are viewed as the pioneers of the world, that is the case in this situation. When was the last time one of the big 3 actually made a bold and daring move like GM and changed the whole car industry by introducing a new drivetrain (one in which the electric side is not connected to the wheels) and engine combination (no traditional hybrids don’t fit this description).

    Damn it feels good to be a…..American!

  • ACAGal

    40 miles in CA, is what I will drive tomorrow, just doing simple stuff, not my business commute. To drive in my area, I need a car that can handle 40- 50mph on surface streets. I can’t use the under 35 mph cars to grocery shop near my home, they aren’t fast enough for local laws, or safe to merge into street traffic. Freeways can be as fast as 75mph-ish to slower than 15mph-ish. One never knows what the same freeway will be like on different days. As for high temperatures, in the shade (my outdoor thermometer says 90F ) This is November, 110F and more, has become common in the summer, during Santa Ana’s, the shifting of the Hawaiian high, etc. Sometimes we get cold enough to freeze, but not too often.

    Despite the fact I haven’t seen enough rain to keep a grass lawn, a likely hazard here is flooding. I would like to know what water level constitutes a problem to the electric system.
    The Volt has gas assist, but how many times will I have to fill the tank per month. If it is about the same as my current schedule, I do not save time. It is time that hoped to save through having an EV, because it is time that I need.

  • CD

    Obama fired the GM CEO. He stuck his man in there and he came up the the $40K Compact Car. Obama’s EPA Cronnies are lieing about the 230 MPG to make Obama’s Edsil look good. They didn’t even taked into consideration that the Volt may be polluting more on batteries charged by Coal powered Electricity than when they just use gasoline. Spain lost 2 jobs for every Green Job they created and Obama is taking us down the same road with the Volt. Toyota is already taking a different approach and will make a killing with a $25K Compact car that runs on half the batteries of a Volt. Ford and Chrysler can do this to if they know what is good for them.

  • TD

    Does It Matter?

    Most people just need to get to work and back and maybe take a short drive for lunch. I would guess for most people that number is under 40 miles. For me its right around 20 miles round trip. I would never have to buy a drop of gas again for 95+ percent of my driving. Go Volt.

  • TD

    “I would hope that only a few idiots would expect a car to have the same range regardless of weather or road conditions, or driving style. Gasoline-powered cars have most of the same effects.”

    You would think so, but Honda is being sued by people who are not getting the “claimed” mileage for their Civic Hybrids.

  • Mr.Bear

    Let’s see:
    1. Extended high speed driving – my commute is mainly between 55mph and 65mph.
    2. Hot and cold temperatures – 105F in the summer and -15F in the winter.
    3. Hilly conditions – I live in a box canyon. The final stretch is 6.5 mikes all uphill.

    Let me guess, I might get 20 miles of my 46 mile roundtrip commute as all electric. And all this for $40,000.

    I’m better off with the Leaf and the 18 hour charge time.

  • Mr.Bear

    And the 230 mpg advertisement somehow seems even more stupid.

  • wphamilton

    The whole concept of an electric drop-in replacement for our big fast automobiles is misguided. You’re going to have less functionality, shorter range, slower speeds, more fueling stops, lower performance and less comfort than you’d have in a much cheaper automobile. Why expect anyone to buy it? This car is designed on hope: hope that people will buy it because they like the idea, want something that feels like their old car, and have enough money to waste 40K on something that might go 40 miles. Hope that they can still make the big profits of the big vehicles.

    Simple objective reasoning leads to the inevitable: electric transport will have to be smaller, lighter and lower performance than what we’re used to. This car has a 400-lb battery and a 150 hp motor. Cut both by a factor of 10 if the acceptable target really IS commuting and short trips up to 40 miles at sub-20 mph. You could just about double the Volt’s capabilities at a fraction of the cost.

  • Anonymous

    I like it. It’s not perfect, but it’s a start for GM.

    Now only if GM can stop those “most fuel efficient vehicle on the highway” ads. The consumers are too smart to know the mpg of those vehicles will tank during city commuting conditions.

  • cindy cosworth

    This site is so proven to be funded by Toyota.
    Even the products they sell is Toyota.

    yawn.. I am getting tired of this sites bias.

    lets face it folks this site will never ever say anything good about A GM product.

    Lets face it the volt is 100 years more advanced than the Toyota prius and Toyota is scared because they cant think of a way to make a better car.

    Toyota is till thinking inside the box the box that will be crushed .


  • cindy cosworth

    This site is so proven to be funded by Toyota.
    Even the products they sell is Toyota.

    yawn.. I am getting tired of this sites bias.

    lets face it folks this site will never ever say anything good about A GM product.

    Lets face it the volt is 100 years more advanced than the Toyota prius and Toyota is scared because they cant think of a way to make a better car.

    Toyota is till thinking inside the box the box that will be crushed .


  • Scott Z

    You would expect people not assume 40 miles is a hard rule? Come on! Most people that I talk to don’t even think about what MPGs they are getting. Sadly most people don’t care.

    I expect bashing of the miles achieved by the Volt and the Leaf to be common. Of course when someone floors the accelerator often the efficiency falls but many people have little understanding of that.

    I expect the Volt to be an big failure. I already consider it a failure considering how many years GM has been talking about it but I do hope I am wrong.

    The setup Toyota uses in the Prius seems much more logical. Electric to drive the car or gas and electric when needed. Extra gas & breaking power to charge the battery when not needed. I am unclear when GM choose to always make the gas powered system only feed the batteries.

  • Allannde

    So long as gasoline is available at an affordable cost and we are willing to accept the cost of wars to maintain access to oil and the transfer of wealth to people who don’t like us – why not enjoy gasoline powered cars?

    There is also the bother of global warming, unless you don’t believe in that.

    So, yes, electric vehicles are not yet equal to gasoline powered vehicles in performance. My little Zenn works fine for at least half of the times I go out to drive and saves wear and tear on my other car.

    With use, electric cars will improve. It took gasoline cars 25 years or more to get anywhere near where they are now.

  • AP

    Scott Z, you should note that the Prius is 100% powered by gasoline, unless you have converted it to a plug-in. The only energy in the small battery pack is from the engine “back-driving” the electric motors as generators. Once charged, the electric-only range is very short (~ 1/2 mile?).

  • ex-EV1 driver

    Wow! the shills are out in force with this article. Even Bill Cosworth’s ?sister? Cindy seems to be here.
    For some reason you think that electric cars will yield “less functionality, shorter range, slower speeds, more fueling stops, lower performance and less comfort”. While it is possible to make wimpy electric vehicles, they don’t have to be so as Tesla has proven. Sure, you take on a few hundred extra pounds to handle the extra weight of batteries but the torque that an electric motor can provide can wipeout any gasoline or diesel engine.
    You seem to be missing the point that you don’t have to go to the gas station if you drive less than 40 miles (or maybe its 30) in the day. If you do go more than 40 miles in the day without a stop to recharge, you start using gasoline very efficiently.
    I certainly hope the Volt will do 40 miles of real-world, gasoline free driving but even 20 miles of 70 mph would be great for most people. It is just hard for most people to grasp the concept of a plug-in hybrid until they actually see other, more visionary people, use them.

  • Lost Prius to wife

    Mulad, your figures are as good as possible for 8 gallons. But from a past article of Hybrid, it indicated the proposed tank size is 7 gallons, not 8 gallons. This should mean ~48.5 mpg, gas only driven mileage, without any consideration about the combined electric / gas mileage or other mileage reducing conditions. I still think that with either a 7 or 8 gallon tank, the Volt will be a good product.

  • Lost Prius to wife

    Mr. Bear, I think that you are right. The Volt would not be the right product for you and your given conditions. The Volt would not be right, in my opinion, for anyone with those given conditions. I think the choice of a Nissan Leaf would be a better match for your given conditions. And if you can run 220 or 480 electric lines on your property, the charge time of 18 hours becomes much shorter.

  • Lost Prius to wife

    AP, I fully agree with your comment that any car’s mileage is affected by weather and road conditions. Some people just need to bash the hybrids, EVs, and other potential alternative vehicles because they do not understand or believe the underlying motivation (less oil usage, less CO2, etc.). They want to stay with the “rose colored glasses” of the gas driven past. No amount of prodding or talking will convince them until they do their own proper research (key word here is “proper”) and realize that people like Samie, Mr. Bear, ex-EV1 driver, you, myself and others are correct in which way that the future has to go. We may differ in opinion on which path is the best and which manufacture is going that direction the best, but we all know that the future is not in that antiquated gas driven past.

  • ex-EV1 driver

    I’d bet that the Volt would be perfect for Mr. Bear. If his highest speed is 65 mph, he’d probably get close to the advertised 40 miles on a charge except at the temperature extremes. Cold temperature performance could change if GM provides a means of battery warming (just like engine block heaters). Battery warming would probably be pretty easy to do but likely won’t be in the first generation Volt. Mr. Bear would only consume gasoline on his return trip from work and he would surely get better than 50 mpg for that part which would probably be between 6 and 15 miles. If he were to get a charger installed at work, he would consume zero gasoline for his daily drive.
    I agree with Lost Prius to wife in that the Leaf would probably be preferential for commuting but the Volt would be a huge benefit to what he’s doing today.
    If his car today was a gas guzzler such as a Prius 🙂 he’d consume about 1 gallon of gas per day.
    With a Volt, he’d consume less than 1/3 of a gallon of gas per day.
    With work charging or the Leaf, he’d forget what gasoline was 🙂

  • veek

    Well, GM set itself up for much of the “bashing” by being so darned insistent on the 40-mile figure, and on the incredible claims for mileage from the Volt. At first they were just goals, but later on they hardened into a claim, and then practically into a promise, so you can understand the flak. In GM’s defense, it should have been intuitively obvious to even the most casual observer that no one can expect 40 miles under all circumstances (prospective buyers of the Leaf should also consider the 100 mile figure as a guideline, too. Don’t plan on doing Pikes Peak Highway in the middle of June with five passengers and the air on full).

    So … if you don’t like it, plan to buy another car. At least no one has bought a Volt based on the promises GM has made (well, perhaps except the stupid government, and they only spent a few tens of billions on the implied promise of the Volt. They can always get the money from the taxpayer).

    Perhaps the Volt will not be as revolutionary as we had been led to believe.

  • vince charles

    And how exactly is GM innovating? What’s innovative at all?

    Hybridization of the EV1 (range-extender, still primarily a BEV) was pointed out almost immediately by outside groups. Actual road experiments were even done by small groups. And yet, Renault (yes, that Renault) sold the first PHEV, the Elect’road, in 2003.

    How is GM innovating by following Renault?

  • Mr.Bear

    My main problem with the Volt is the $40,000 price tag. The premium paid for the 40 mile EV range is too high. If it was $30,000 I’d think about buying one.

    My best, best case scenario (absolute shortest route and full 40 mile EV range) I would only drive a maximum of 3 miles a day, 4 days a week on the gas generator. If I assume the gas generator gets me an average of 50 mpg equivalent, the price of gas would have to be in the $4.40 – $4.70 / gallon range for it to break even with the cost of owning my Prius which I bought at just over $23,500.

    The Leaf with its $30,000 price tag makes much more economic sense. For the Leaf, gas only has to be higher than $1.65 – $1.75 / gallon range for it to break even with my Prius. Even if its $35,000 it only raises the break even to $3.20 / gallon.

    I’m willing to bet that gas will be more expensive on average than $1.75 / gallon or even $3.20 / gallon over the next 10 years than than $4.40 / gallon for the same period.

    Here’s a question I’d like answered: Why is the Volt $40,000 with only enough battery power to go 40 miles plus a generator plus a gas tank $5,000 to $10,000 more expensive than the Leaf with enough battery power to go 100 miles with no generator and no gas tank? Is the cost differential between the small battery + generator + gas tank really $5,000 – $10,000 more expensive than the bigger battery? I thought bigger batteries were supposed to be super expensive.

    Something doesn’t seem quite right there. I mean in that really is the case, Nissan could offer a “double battery” and double the range of the car to 200 miles for the same sticker price as the Volt. Sure, you’d have to park it for two days to fully charge it on 110 volts, but it seems like a better deal.

  • Mr.Bear

    By the way, I should clarify… when I say my commute is “hilly”:

    The elevation difference between home and work is about 1,300 feet over the 21.5 miles. The last 6.5 miles on the way home account for 975 feet of the elevation difference.

  • ex-EV1 driver

    Mr Bear,
    It is way too early to know the actual price of an EV. The first ones will be very expensive and will be sold at a loss. The cost will drop but the price will likely remain fairly constant, close to the starting price. The big issues are:
    – What is the initial cost of the vehicle?
    – What will the high volume cost be?
    – How fast will the cost get to the high volume cost?
    – What price will the market bear? (hopefully, this is well above the high volume cost)
    – How long does/can the manufacturer operate at a loss?

    From these and other questions, the manufacturers will have to determine the asking price. Of course, these companies are used to selling products that have been in development with few real changes for over 100 years. Do they even know how to predict costs or prices of revolutionary new things such as an EV?
    I guess the biggest issues in our determining between the Volt and the Leaf (or their equivalents) are:
    – Whether we’ll have another car to take on long trips.
    – Whether we believe there will be sufficient fast-charging infrastructure to allow the Leaf to meet all of our needs.
    – Whether other differences such as carrying capacity, US -vs- Foreign manufacturers, aesthetic preferences, perceived luxury, expected reliability, etc would encourage us to go with a car that is more expensive than the other, just like we do when deciding between a Kia, BMW, Impala, etc today.

  • Mr.Bear

    I also just realized I forgot the $1800 per year lease on the Leaf’s battery. That will increase the life cycle cost of the car significantly. Because both the Prius and Volt will take considerable less than $150 a month in gas.

  • ex-EV1 driver

    Mr. Bear,
    As you probably know, most cars are sold based upon an emotional decision, not a rational one. I, of course, (digressing) blame a lot of our economic problems on this kind of behavior but, it is a fact in America.
    Very few people actually think about what they really need or what their car really costs them.
    The car companies are most likely making their sales strategy based upon the majority approach, not the smart, thinking people such as generally are active in forums such as this.

  • Hmm

    I don’t believe the article is providing any false information. Unfortunately, most people are truly unaware that mileage numbers are estimates. I know the writer of the piece knows this, but GM is not doing itself any favors by promoting 240 mpg when the reality is that the condition where 240 mpg is achievable is rare. The concept behind this type of hybrid seems sound, my biggest fear is that GM will produce a hybrid car in very low numbers that is not very good. After unfortunately renting two GM cars (Aveo and Cobalt) the last year on various trips, I’m afraid that the Volt is a Cobalt with a hybrid drivetrain dropped in with a high MSRP. The hybrid naysayers will have a field day about the failure of hybrids to sell, where in this scenario it would be more about the car itself than the hybrid drivetrain. I believe that we’ll see this type of hybrid system (all electric drive) evolve in other vehicles, but not with this manufacturer.

  • Anonymous

    Volt’s website says that should the Volt go over 40 miles a gas powered generator kicks iun that powers the car for hundreds of miles.

  • JMS

    “Mr. Bear:
    By the way, I should clarify… when I say my commute is “hilly”:

    The elevation difference between home and work is about 1,300 feet over the 21.5 miles. The last 6.5 miles on the way home account for 975 feet of the elevation difference.”

    In a report posted at is an account of driving the Autoroad on Mt. Washington, New Hampshire, in a “Solectria” electric car with 16 kWh NiCd battery. Manufacturer’s specifications for the Solectria’s AC induction motor state that it will deliver approximately 44 HP and is a brushless sealed design that weighs 78 pounds (lbs). Company specifications further state that it has extremely low electrical resistance; nominal power is 12 kW and nominal torque is 20 Nm; while maximum power and torque are 37 kW and 70 Nm, respectively. Nominal motor speed is 4,000 rpm and maximum motor speed is 12,000 rpm. The manufacturer states the motor has an efficiency of 92%. As you can see, this car had less power than a Chevy Volt, but a battery of similar capacity. The Solectria with NiCd battery weighed 2,700 lbs.

    The summit of Mount Washington is 6,288 feet above mean sea level. The Mt. Washington “Autoroad” is approximately 7.6 miles long and rises roughly 4,600 feet to about 6,227 feet elevation (you have to climb the rest of the way by foot to the summit). The average grade (slope) on this road is 12%, while actual grades vary between 8 and 15%, with maximum grades of about 22% very near the top. The road contains about 35% paved and 65% unpaved sections.

    The EV manufacturer was consulted prior to our drive. They modeled the drive and assured us there was ample battery power in the nickel cadmium (NiCd) pack. The NiCd BEV was successfully driven up the Mt. Washington “Autoroad” on a single charge. The car had ample capacity for this hill climb. In fact, as a result of regenerative braking on the descent, the car appeared to have enough energy in its batteries to repeat the drive to the summit, but our schedule did not allow sufficient time for a second drive up the mountain.

    Summary of Ascent
    The distance registered on the car odometer during the ascent was 7.6 miles. In all, 47.06 Amp-hours were used to drive to the top. This equates to 7.02 Kilowatt-hours (DC). The speed-limit advisory is 20 mph on the Autoroad. The elapsed time to the top was one hour with four planned roadside stops.

    Summary of Descent
    The downhill distance registered on the car odometer was 7.3 miles. The car recovered 17.93 Amp-hours through its regenerative brakes. This equates to 2.71 kWh Kilowatt-hours (DC). The downhill speed varied, but was generally about 15-18 mph (posted speed limit was 20 mph). Table 5 in the report shows the data recorded for both the ascent and descent on the Mount Washington “Autoroad.”

    Regenerative braking was all the braking required for most of the descent. Recovered energy was stored in the NiCd battery. The regenerative braking system recovered 38.6% of the energy expended for the uphill drive.

    Other observation: The Solectria with 16 kWh NiCd battery consistently provided at least a 70-mile range on a charge, year round. The experience with the Solectria and what I’ve read about the Volt leads me to believe a Chevy Volt driven in central Connecticut will provide 40 miles on a charge for average drivers, but 55-65 miles for “efficient” drivers.

  • Anonymous

    GM’s Bob Lutz admitted at the Detroit Auto Show that he only got about 25 miles of range when he drove the Volt in cold weather.

  • Amir

    Revolutionary? Give me a freakin break. The car is a freakin piece od crap!

  • Amir

    Fred Flinston had a more effective and reliable car.

    This is a effing joke. I hope you Obots are happy. You just wasted BILLIONS more of our money on this $41,000 lemon. A holes.

  • Ilpalazzo

    I can’t wait for 5 o clock rush hour traffic to get even WORSE when batteries are dying while people are backed up. So much for the “I’m never buying gas again!” approach!

  • Russ in NC

    The premise of the Volt is to simply make sure the Fleet CAFE is met, and to please its new masters in Washington DC. The Volt will sell about as well as the EV-1. By the way, I wonder if the Edison Field charging stations are still operational. I left So Cal in 2004 so I’m not up to speed on such details.

  • shawn

    Hey i think they had electric cars back in 1950’s. And undeveloped nations actually use diesal generators to turn electric motors that could be way better than this over priced concept.

  • Peterbilt Trucks

    It is great post.mostly car having certain limitation of speed with respect to their surrounding environment. mostly at highway speed of car is very fast.whenever the problems are faced during the long trip. specially if i never have to visit the gas station, buy gas, or buy all those impulse items at the convenience store/gas station locations. if I want to go on a long trip, I fly or rent a big SUV.