Is the Chevy Volt an EV or a Hybrid? Who Cares?

Posted by: David Welch on October 12, 2010

To hear one critic tell it, General Motors got caught in an out-and-out lie when the company described labeled the Chevrolet Volt an extended-range electric vehicle. Edmunds.com said in a headline that “GM Lied.” The Volt is really a hybrid-electric vehicle like the Toyota Prius, Edmunds said. Critics from Motor Trend and Popular Mechanics made a similar argument, though they stopped short of saying GM was dishonest. In any case, there is an electric dust up over the Volt and what to call it. Is it a hybrid or an EV?

The argument goes like this. When the Volt is driving hard, say, over 70 miles per hour or it’s climbing hills, the gasoline engine will directly power the car’s second electric motor, which then turns the wheels. This came as a surprise because GM has billed the car as an electric vehicle that uses the gasoline engine to charge the battery. The company has said that the car’s electric motors draw power straight from the battery. That gasoline engine is only there to charge the battery. GM’s engineers didn’t reveal until recently that the engine can power a secondary electric motor that turns the wheels. Critics say this new revelation makes the Volt a hybrid, because the Prius does drive in a similar way. GM counters that there is no direct mechanical linkage from the gasoline engine to the wheels. So it’s an electric vehicle.

GM opened itself up to this kind of criticism. They should have just explained how it worked in the first place. If GM had just explained in more detail how the Volt worked during the three years of hype leading up to the introduction, the technology geeks, the technology geeks, auto buff magazine writers and green commentariat would have hashed over whether it’s a hybrid or an extended-range EV and been done with it. The debate wouldn’t be making headlines a couple of weeks before GM starts selling the car. But GM was trying to distinguish the Volt from the Prius and establish a leadership position. In point of fact, the Volt is different and more advanced regardless of its label.

That said, I doubt most consumers will care what label anyone slaps on the Volt. This is inside baseball. Eric Noble, whose auto consulting firm The CarLab in Orange (Calif.) interviews consumers about car technology routinely, told me that they don’t care about labels, or when the engine powers the car or the gasoline engine. They ask about battery range, mileage, plug-in requirements and battery durability. They want to know if the fuel savings justifies the extra cost of the car. I also called Dan Becker, who heads up the environmental activist group Safe Climate Campaign. He didn’t care, either. So long as it gets high mileage and delivers low emissions, “I don’t care what you call it,” Becker told me. So this is much ado about nothing. It’s also a flare up that GM could have avoided.

Reader Comments

Steve

October 12, 2010 2:48 PM

They claim they were withholding details until the patent went through. That seems like a pretty reasonable reason.

And like you say, what does it matter?

GK

October 12, 2010 3:52 PM

So I guess it doesn't matter that GM has mislead both journalists and consumers about a material part of how the car works? What else have they described incorrectly (hint: something to do with MPG)? I guess when it is something "nobody cares about", then lying about it is okay. It's only wrong to lie about something when "enough" people care about it.

So let's look at the next "fact" that GM is going to have to explain: the 230 MPG claim. So far, with only one exception under extreme circumstances, no journalist that is getting an early look at the Volt has come anywhere near that claim. Most are getting 22-25MPG combined city/highway in typical driving scenarios. Some are getting into the 30's combined.

GM made a claim about the powertrain, along with the mileage claim, to justify the $10,000 premium (or about 35-40% more than competing hybrids). On top of that, a buyer still has to fork out for the charging station ($2000 installed), and add extra cost onto their home power bill. That's a $12,000 premium plus who knows how much extra per month in electricity. I can get a conventional gas-powered Ford Focus that gets as good mileage, avoids the bump in the home power costs, and puts $12,000 in my pocket.

GM based their inflated price partly on a lie. Shame on you, as a journalist, for deeming it unimportant enough to call it such, or to call GM to task for doing it.

wowlfie

October 13, 2010 12:38 PM

It's a plug-in hybrid if the engine powers the wheels at any time.

GM lied.

GM is going down as the vehicle is way over priced and will depreciate quickly if prices drop as battery technology gets cheaper.

Beware buyers this is a vehicle to stay away from as resell value will be horrible.

Mark Woodhams

October 13, 2010 1:29 PM

Who Cares? How about the fact that the govenment created a special catagory and a $7,500 tax credit for the Volt and changed the Hybrid tax credit for everyone else to $0 based on it being s plug-in which amounts to $2.500 rebate ( a tricky way to spend your tax dollars) Researh then bolg!

wowlfie

October 13, 2010 7:58 PM

It's a hybrid (plug-in) as the engine drive train spins the wheels at 70+ mph. Plain and simple. No contest.

It's also way way way over priced!!!

mr

October 14, 2010 6:45 AM

most car buyers are concerned about price, reliability,cost to run, etc. all alternative machines and fuels require subsidies to gain acceptence! untill they can stand on their own they will still be marginal players. more research and changes must be made to conventional machines and fuels to improve their use till better alternatives become practical. no amount BS will change that situation!

roger

October 14, 2010 10:11 AM

Hey here is a thought why not go look at the thing,drive it, and if you like it and can afford it ...buy it! does it really matter if it is called a this or a that? Too many opinions are like too many chefs! Cut the confusion. Judge the thing for yourself!!!!!

STDog

October 14, 2010 4:23 PM

What does it matter whether the generator goes to the battery first or directly to the motor?

The way electricity work's you get the same result (well lower losses since you bypass some wiring and extra connectors going straight to the motor)

It's still not a mechanically coupled system like the other "hybrid" systems. The Volt more like a diesel-electric locomotive, which is what I've wanted to see since before the Prius.

The engine (gasoline, diesel, etc.) can be built and tuned for maximum efficiency, which means a set RPM. The engine always runs at that setting.

When mechanically coupled, the engine needs a wide operating range, which compromises maximum efficiency, and a transmission to decouple the engine. More gears in the transmission help keep the engine in a smaller RPM band, but you need too many different gears to narrow the RPM range enough.

Eric

October 14, 2010 9:37 PM

Actually, there are no hybrids on the road today. A true hybrid has all electric drive and an engine that drives a generator. A Diesel-Electric locomotive is a hybrid. The big cruise ships are hybrids. The Prius is... not a hybrid. The Volt would have been the first true hybrid on the road. Alas, no longer. Now it is just another middle of the road compromise that is another failed attempt. GM did lie, and it does matter.

Steven Paul - Test Drive Technologies

October 15, 2010 10:48 AM

The ones that are going to care if the new Chevy Volt is a hybrid or electric vehicle is those in the White House that say how much, if any, of a rebate or discount you can get by purchasing this vehicle. As we all know most of the tax incentives have dried up for hybrids so it is in GM's best interest to brand this shocking vehicle as ELECTRIC.

David Welch

October 19, 2010 11:28 AM

David Welch with Bloomberg BusinessWeek here. I wrote the blog post. Some readers have written in saying that the label on the Volt matters because calling it an EV allows the car to qualify for government tax credits. That's not true. The car qualifies because of the size of the battery on board. It doesn't matter what marketers or press releases or auto writers call it. If you want to make the case that GM has risked its credibility by calling the Volt a range-extended EV, that's fine. But it's a different debate.

Boyd Houston

December 25, 2010 9:26 AM

G.M. is just flat over with. The last car sold in the USA that was made by a government was the Yugo. Outside of the US Government there was zero demand for a car that cost this much, does so little and is made so poorly. If you are one of the poor souls that bought GM stock-- well good luck.

nursing careers

December 27, 2010 2:14 AM

General Motors got caught in an out-and-out lie when the company described labeled the Chevrolet.
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nursing careers

Lisa Miller

January 30, 2011 8:45 AM

I am not a high technology oriented person but what i can say is that both EV or hybrid chevy volt are good.I have used GM cars with the two components and i didn't realize much different.That said, i am not a manufacturer so lets give GM power to advise us and will follow.

John A.

February 25, 2011 11:23 AM

I have a 2010 Prius and previously had a 2006. I've had no problems with either car. When I sold my 2006 Prius at the end of 2009, I got about $3000 less than what I paid for it. Try to beat that! The $40,000 price tag for the Chevy Volt is going to be a major hurdle, no matter if you call it a hybrid or EV. Bottom line is the Chevy Volt is suppose to be an economy car and nobody pays $40 grand for an economy car.

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