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For some, the Chevy Volt has been a slippery fish to define with regards to whether it will really save them in energy costs. Does it get just 37 mpg like the window sticker says? Does it return an astronomical, if not confusing and questionable “98 MPGe” like a pure electric car?
While critics have pounced on its 37 mpg in premium-gas-only operation as evidence it’s inferior to competitive hybrids, less often noticed is the U.S. EPA also ranks it at 62 mpg gas-plus-electric on an average daily drive, and effectively the most fuel-efficient car you can buy.
You won’t find this 62 mpg combined on the window sticker however. Where the EPA does mention it is when it ranks the Volt for all intents and purposes as number one on its “Top Fuel Sippers” list of all years of vehicles ever sold in the U.S. Only the limited-range “88-mpg” BMW i3 REx beats it, but BMW’s “megacity” car is not designed for sustained travel in gas-only operation. Its 650cc range extender with 2.4-gallon gas tank is only a temporary backup to get you home.
Among cars you can travel coast-to-coast on gas alone if needed – or with zero “range anxiety” – the Volt’s 62 mpg rating may worth noting. Why? because it may be more reflective of potential real world mpg for average drivers, if not actually a conservative number.
Then again, 62 mpg could also be called a contrived number, but it’s a very sophisticated one, if so.
What it is, is the result of a complicated mathematical equation the EPA crunches to determine its “utility factor.”
Utility factor is engineer-speak for operation partly on battery, and partly on gas, and follows a complex formula and certain assumptions. It’s a unique workaround for the Volt and other electrified vehicles that also are hard to pigeonhole.
Last month Chevrolet began accepting orders in California for the more-efficient, second-generation Volt with first deliveries due in a couple months. The rest of the country will be able to order later, with deliveries by this fall.
The 2016 Volt – expected to return 41-43 mpg on regular gas alone and with larger battery and 50 miles rated range – will thus raise the Volt’s status even higher.
It Ain’t Easy Being Green
Like Kermit the Frog, consumer studies have shown the Volt has suffered from misunderstanding all its life on the market in part because of its potentially super efficient powertrain that is also capable of being less efficient than a 50 mpg Toyota Prius.
True also, there are numerous other reasons for the Volt’s flying under the radar, including political objections, cost objections, deliberate obfuscation against it, genuine misunderstanding, and more.
But with regard to what the Volt can do in saving gas and cutting emissions, in a word, the car has just not registered in many peoples’ minds that it could benefit them.
True also, other plug-in hybrids do score relatively close to the Volt by the EPA’s reckoning, but a study by the Idaho National Lab has also proven the Volt’s potential, due to its longest all-electric range and largest traction battery.
The extended-range electric Volt is unique, and along with other plug-in hybrids, it merges two power sources that the EPA saw from the start would be difficult for average Americans accustomed to conventional powertrains to comprehend.
The EPA’s decision to omit the 62 mpg gas-plus-electric was a deliberate one, as explained by an EPA representative:
It is true that the label does not display the combined value that “merges” gas and electricity. We chose not to provide this to consumers on the label because it implies a mix of gas and electricity that is “fixed” by the utility factor methodology and is appropriate only for a consumer who drives exactly as the utility factor assumes. We thought it better to provide the “bookends,” showing consumers the electricity consumption (and how many miles it was expected to last) and the gasoline consumption that occurs after the electricity is depleted. But we need to “merge” gas and electricity to provide a metric by which we can compare PHEVs to all other vehicles.
From 37 mpg to Infinity
In fact, the Volt may be considered capable of running on a low of 37-rated mpg on premium gas to not needing gas at all. It’s this latter fact that has attracted those who “get it” and are on board with benefitting from the potential the car has to not need gas or radically skew the “mpg” into the upper reaches.
The enthusiasts’ site Voltstats.com has essentially made it a contest and point of pride with far-out fringe Volt owners seeing them claiming as much as 13,000 “mpg.”
Of course this is a skewed statistic, and the Volt did not really run 13,000 miles on a gallon of gas and nothing else; rather the remaining miles were either by electricity from the battery or gravity.
The car does not defy the laws of physics, it’s just on really good terms with them.
Like other electrified cars, its electric motor drive is much more efficient with electric energy, and while it takes 33.7 kilowatt-hours of energy just to equal one gallon of gasoline, the Volt is already trouncing conventional cars with its 16.0-17.1 kilowatt-hour battery.
This enables the Volt to run like a pure gas-eschewing electric car farther than other plug-in hybrids. When its 38-miles rated range is averaged in with daily gas usage as needed, or if needed, it does tend to create high mpg scores.
Even General Motors early on made a pitch to see the EPA rate it for 230 mpg but that request was kyboshed by the feds before production began.
Today, hamstrung by law, GM still hints as loudly as it can that the car goes 900 miles between fill-ups on its 9-gallon gas tank, aided as it is by the battery. Other GM OnStar sourced data and owner testimonials have shown the car going months between fill ups.
But, on the flip side, if you drive it sloppily, and with no charge in the battery, you can see mpg plummet to below 30 mpg.
The Volt therefore is what you make of it, and may be only average to an mpg superstar.