By Zack Klapman.
Cheap driving is great, “free” driving is better. Paying for fuel isn’t fun. Never mind oil speculation and that complicated topic; watching your fuel gauge go down as you drive by gas stations displaying high prices is a constant thorn in the stress center of your brain. It just needles one molecule deep in your grey matter, but that seed of budgetary discomfort is a pesky bastard.
It’s for these reasons that I am attracted to efficient cars. Sure, if I had my dream I’d live on a 100-acre tarmac slab, next to a tire factory, with a squadron of big-power RWD cars in my garage. But big power is useless in traffic, something proven to me when I sat in bumper-to-bumper in a Viper ACR. 600HP and a big wing is useless at 0 miles per hour. What you’re driving then is a gas fire. You might as well be pouring gas into a flaming barrel, dragging it along the 405.
For normal driving, cheap is good. It puts me at peace, and I appreciate a frugal engine like I appreciate a powerful one.
For many moons my go-to example was a diesel anything. Torquey, reliable, higher MPG than your shoes. A particular favorite was the 2013 Volkswagen Passat TDI SE. Though it’s rated at 30/40MPG, on my 800-mile trip I saw 45-55MPG, depending on speed. It only has 140HP but diesels have always been about torque, and this car’s 236ft-lbs are plenty for merging or passing. Coupled to VW’s DSG transmission and propulsion is smooth and willing. The 18.5 gallon tank holds over 700 miles of possibilities. It’s airy inside, the seats are comfortable, and at only $29,000 it doesn’t carry the price hike over its gas sibling, like many oil-burners do. It’s an excellent choice for cheap-ish commuting and long-distance sojourns.
And when you compare it to the Chevy Volt’s $39,000 MSRP price tag, it is. At that price, you would have to drive a Volt for 60-90,000 miles, on battery only, before the savings would eclipse that $10,000 price difference.
But then I remembered the $7,500 federal tax credit Volt buyers get. And if you live in California, you get $1,500 more, and now Chevy is offering $4,000 cash back. Even sans the last two, your Chevy Volt is in Volkswagen Passat territory, and the game is over.
If you haven’t driven a Chevrolet Volt, do. It rides nicer than ze German, which has introduced some road noise thanks to cost cutting at VW. The Volt is noise-canceling headphones to the Passats ear buds.
The steering feels nice, the seats are great, and there’s lots of space everywhere. The touch buttons take some getting used to, but the screen looks like the future (the Passat looks like the past). Just be careful with your interior color decor, because your choice makes or breaks the look. All black makes it look expensive. The tan/brown I had: moderately priced retirement home.
But the meat of the 2013 Chevy Volt is the drivetrain, and it is incredible. It’s essentially an electric car with a generator on board (the engine doesn’t drive the wheels, ever). That means it always drives the same, unlike the bursts of power in a Prius.
And because most people commute under 40 miles per day, you will never hear that engine kick on, and that is an unbelievably satisfying feeling. I loved plugging it in at night, and then waving at the Chevron the next day. You have various charging options and speeds, but it will never be an inconvenient amount of time. And if it’s not charged, guess what? The engine turns on, and you can drive forever. I drove for a week, for “free”. Plugged it in at night, drove away in the morning, with nary a bump in the electric bill.
I love diesel engines, I do. The Passat is very good at its job. But the Chevy Volt is the bridge between fossil fuel and whatever comes next. Not only does it have the technology of now, the pricing is competitive, and it drives exceptionally well. If the Volkswagen Passat is the best crossbow around, the Volt is a rifle.