Chevy Volt sustainable city review

I’m pretty proud of not owning a car. But that’s because I’m lucky enough to live in South Williamsburg, Brooklyn, equidistant from four subway lines that will take me anywhere in the city. I also work from home. And when I have worked in an office, my commute was always pretty simple and easy. I’m positively pampered when it comes to transportation.

Ideally, nobody would need a car in the city. But I know that isn’t always true. I have a couple of friends who works in sales, and have to roam in and out of the city to appointments. Others live way out in Brooklyn or Queens. They could take public transportation, but taking the bus and/or subway would tack a full hour onto their work commute.

And honestly, sometimes I myself miss having a car. I miss listening to audiobooks and podcasts. I miss being able to go hiking without paying exorbitant amounts for a rental car, or puzzling through exactly which hikes are actually accessible from NJ Transit. When I visit my family in Maryland, they play hot potato with who is going to have to drive to Baltimore from Annapolis to pick me up.

So when Chevy offering me the opportunity to borrow their hybrid Volt for one week* I eagerly took it.

There are certainly incentives. New York State recently enacted a $2,000 rebate for electric vehicles, and the federal government also offers an EV tax credit that’s worth as much as $7,500 per vehicle. (Check out if your state has EV incentives, here.)

So early one morning, a gleaming Chevy was dropped off in front of my apartment building. We loaded it up with stuff, then set out on a road trip upstate to two music festivals in one weekend.

Chevy Volt Review

What a Cutie

It must be said, it’s a cute car, with two-tone brown and cream leather seats, and a body design that is sleek. It was fun to drive, with plenty of pickup. When my friends saw it, they loved it. If I had to have a car, I would happily drive this one around.

A Long, Long Range

A full charge will only last you about 50 miles, so we used up the battery before we ever arrived upstate. Still, I wouldn’t say this makes the Volt bad for a road trip, not at all. The Volt is a gas/electric hybrid, and can go up to 420 miles with a full charge and full tank of gas, and this made our life so easy. We drove from Brooklyn to New Jersey to pick up friends, 85 miles upstate, 24 miles to Woodstock and back, back down to New Jersey and to Brooklyn, and we never had to stop for gas. Magic. When I did finally stop for gas during my second road trip, it cost me $17 to fill up the tank!

Finding That Charging Station, Though…

Actually finding a charging station was challenging, however. When we got close to our upstate destination, I looked up the nearest charging station using the ChargePoint app, but it was a 30-minute drive away from the festival. (If I was going to the Hudson Whiskey distillery, I would have been all set!) To charge the car, I would have had to ask someone to follow me in their car and bring me back, then take me over again the next day, and I didn’t want to put anyone out. We used gas for the rest of the trip.

Back in Williamsburg, I found that the nearest charging stations were located inside expensive parking garages in upscale high rises on the water. (There are a lot of charging station in Manhattan, and a few scattered throughout Queens, Brooklyn, Staten Island, and Jersey City, mostly in parking garages). I pulled in, told the attendant I wanted to charge my car, and then let him take the car from me to park it. But when I came back two days later, I found that my car had not been charged. They had just parked it wherever. Turns out you have to be very, very specific and clear with parking garage attendants about charging, and pay additional fee. I bet even then I would have had to come back the next day and move my car away from the charging station to let someone else use it.

So I tried one more time in Annapolis. I was going going to use the charging function. That was the whole point! Two charging stations came up on the map near my sister’s house. The first one I tried was in a state employee’s parking lot near the State Capitol building. Signs said I had to have an employee pass, but when I buzzed and said, “I need to charge my car,” they let me in. I asked a man if he knew where the charging station was, and he peered at my car, then exclaimed, “Oh! You have a Chevy Volt! Follow me.” I felt very important. Unfortunately, one charging station was already taken, and the other was out of service. So I tried another nearby paid garage. The charging station was free there. And when I left the next day, for whatever reason, the gate was open and I didn’t have to pay for parking. Mission accomplished.

Super High Tech

Now, I am not a car expert. I haven’t regularly driven a car since 2009, so every time I get inside a new model, I’m blown away by all the new gadgets and doo-dads. But the Volt was so blinged-out, it was almost distracting. My fiancé read through the manual while we sat in traffic on the Williamsburg Bridge, breathing in fumes, and we played around with buttons and settings. Whee!

We didn’t realize it pings every time you go over the speed limit until we reached the highway. It also tells you when road construction is ahead, talking over Google Maps’ instructions. You can change the settings on the car to disable these prompts, or make it so it pings only when you go 10 miles over the speed limit, for example, but I didn’t want to spend a lot of time diving into the dashboard to figure it out. So the Volt talked to me a lot, which took some getting used to.

Chevy also has an app called myChevrolet that lets you remote start and lock the car, set a reminder for where you parked it, or view diagnostic information. All cool things, though I didn’t use them during my week with the car. I wish I had used the parking reminder when we parked at Mysteryland – we were a bit lost at midnight when we tried to find the artist’s parking lot we had been directed to.

It also has some fancy pants cordless charging areas: a mat and an upright phone holder. But those only work for certain phone models. If you have an iPhone like myself, you need a special cordless charging case. It wouldn’t be a huge deal to order one if you own the Volt. However, I couldn’t get the USB cord to charge my phone. (My Chevy contact said that is not normal, though other people seem to have had the same problem.) I ran out of batteries during my second road trip down to Annapolis and had to plug my phone into my laptop to get enough power to find the charging station at my destination and figure out where to meet my sister. It was stressful.

The Money Question

Here are things to consider when it comes to the cost of owning a Chevy Volt. For argument’s sake, I’m going to compare owning a Chevy Volt in Williamsburg to the Chevy non-hybrid Malibu, and not having a car at all. Obviously these factors will vary enormously according to where you live, what your lifestyle and commute is like, etc. but it’s a thought experiment.

Chevy Volt Chevy Malibu No Car
Parking $10 for up to 10 hours | $275 per month Free street parking N/A
Charging $30.61** per charge | $612 per month N/A N/A
Gas*** $0 $5 a day | $100 per month N/A
Train pass N/A N/A $10 per day | $202 per month****
Total cost $887 per month $100 per month $202 per month

**Assuming 15 kW to fully charge battery at $0.49 per kW, commuting 50 miles a day
***Assuming that you are commuting 50 miles per day. 22 MPG for the Malibu at $2.21 per gallon of gas in Brooklyn. 
**** Assuming you subway to the PATH and have monthly unlimited passes 
I’m also assuming you only commute weekdays. 

Wow, I’m actually really disappointed with these figures, which show the Volt costing you almost $800 more per month! Also, the Volt costs more than $10,000 more to buy than the Malibu. If you get the high end of the state and federal rebates, then that might bring their prices within a couple thousand of each other.

Granted, you could play around with these figures according to your own situation and get something drastically different. Gas is at a historically low price right now. It was double a couple years ago, and that brings gas costs to $200 per month for a Chevy Malibu. Perhaps you live near a garage that has a free charging station (like in Cobble Hill), if so, make it $0 per month for charging and $400 a month for parking. That brings it to $400 per month for a Volt, vesus $220 a month for a Malibu. The Malibu still wins. But if you were planning on parking in a garage anyway, or parking comes free with living in your apartment building, then the Volt wins out in terms of finances.

My quick calculations are held up by other reports on the issue, and they don’t even take into account the cost of parking and charging. You will rarely save money right away, especially since you’ll be paying more for charging and parking. You have to think about it in terms of payback – it might be four years or more until you start saving money. This is all to say that you should do your own calculations to decide if, financially, a Volt is a benefit.

Even if it is definitely a benefit to the environment, which it is.

The Conclusion

As with many sustainable lifestyle decisions (sustainable and ethical fashion, organic food) choosing a hybrid as city dweller can be more expensive and time-consuming than the alternative, I’m sad to say.

You also will have to deal with the convenience factor, and think ahead to finding charging stations if you don’t have one near your home, perhaps near your work. So I would ask yourself these questions:

  • Will getting a car improve my life and save me time compared to using public transportation?
  • Will getting the Volt force me to pay for parking that I wouldn’t otherwise have to pay for?
  • Am I commuting under 5o miles a day?
  • Is a charging station easily accessible near my home, in my garage, or near my work, and how much does it cost?
  • How much do I value not using gas?

This last one is the most important question. I know you aren’t here because you’re trying to save money. There are other websites for that. You’re here because you want to figure out how to live more sustainably. In this way, if you do need a car, and commute under 50 miles a day, you could go months without ever putting gas in your tank, thus severing yourself from the consumption of oil. That would feel pretty good.

I’ve given you all the information you need. Now it’s up to you to make the decision for yourself.

*Chevy generously lent the car to me for free, plus paid for parking and charging, but not gas.