• Oct 31st 2010 at 11:12AM
  • 162


If there's one thing that seems to confuse people about the new Chevy Volt, it's fuel economy. What kind of mileage does the plug-in hybrid Volt get, and how does that compare to other cars, from hybrids like the Toyota Prius to electric vehicles like the Nissan Leaf? The answer is that there's no perfect way to compare the Volt to other vehicles. Even though some media outlets have reported observed mileage numbers -- like Motor Trend's 126.7 mpg -- these numbers are as meaningless as GM's original 230 mpg claim. That's because the Volt's gas mileage is entirely dependent on how far it is driven between recharging. So to go about comparing the Volt to other cars you need to be able to make an estimate of your typical daily mileage. Below about 40 miles per day, you won't need to use gas at all, provided you recharge the vehicle overnight. It's how far you go after you exhaust the roughly 40-mile electric range that determines how much gas you'll use in a Volt.

Lest we be accused of entirely ignoring the costs associated with charging the Volt, let's look at some numbers. According to the U.S. Energy Information Adminstration, the average retail cost of electricity for residential customers stands at about 11.5 cents per Kilowatt-hour (kWh). To completely recharge an "empty" Volt battery (which is actually only 65-percent drained, because the car always maintains some charge in the pack) means putting about 10.4 kWh of electricity back in. But since the process is not 100-percent efficient, it actually takes more energy than that, about 13.4 kWh using a standard 120-volt power outlet, according to Car and Driver magazine's testing. That's about $1.54, or a little more than the cost of half a gallon of gas at today's prices. If you were to plug in and recharge an empty Volt battery every day, you'd be spending $562 a year on electricity for the car. Not an insignificant amount of money, as it's enough to buy 200 gallons of gas.

But charging aside, what most people seem to be concerned with when looking at the Volt is how much gasoline they'd use, and how that would compare to other green cars. So we've done some math to make a comparison among the Volt, Leaf, Prius, and the forthcoming plug-in Prius.

Which ride is right for your commute? If you travel around 100 miles per day or less, it doesn't get more efficient than the Leaf and Volt, but the Prius starts to look better over longer hauls. Find further explanation below.
Adam Morath, Translogic

Let's start with the Leaf, as it's pretty simple to understand. Nissan says the Leaf can drive 100 miles per charge. Of course that means that it may go a bit further under ideal conditions, while it will also have a shorter range if you're driving it like an Indy car. But after you've exhausted its battery, that's it, you'll be waiting for it to recharge on a dedicated 240-volt charger, either one you've installed in your garage or at a public-use facility. While the Leaf is unquestionably the "greenest" car on the road, using no gasoline whatsoever, it's Achilles heel is its inability to drive past its 100-mile range.

The Volt shares the Leaf's all-electric ability, but it's limited to 40 percent of the Leaf's range. After that, however, the Volt's gasoline engine allows the car to travel another 310 miles or so before you need to fill its gas tank. The thing is, driving the car until its gas tank is empty without recharging as a regular practice would be foolish. You'd only wind up getting about 38 miles per gallon, which wouldn't make much sense, not when the Prius has a combined EPA fuel economy rating of 50 mpg.

But since most people don't drive hundreds of miles a day, the Volt will actually use less gas than the Prius, provided your average daily mileage is up to about 117 miles. That's because to travel this distance in the Volt, you will only need to use the gasoline engine for 77 of those miles. At about 33 miles per gallon -- a low-end estimate for the Volt's fuel economy when its gasoline engine is running -- it would use 2.33 gallons of gas. To travel the same distance, the Prius would use 2.34 gallons.

The wildcard in this comparison is the plug-in Prius that Toyota has promised for 2012. Since we haven't seen or tested the actual production version of the car yet, our math here is an even looser estimate than our numbers for the Volt, but this exercise should still give a good idea of what kind of daily driving range makes the plug-in Prius ideal. The Prius PHV (for Plug-in Hybrid Vehicle), as Toyota is currently calling it, is said to have an electric range of only 13 miles. The greater caveat is that you have to drive slowly to achieve that range, under 60 miles per hour, and if you push the throttle hard, the gas engine will kick on regardless of whether you have the car in EV mode.

So we have to make some assumptions for the Prius PHV. The first is that you can actually keep the car in EV mode for all 13 miles. The second is that a larger battery pack (which we're told adds 300 pounds to the car's curb weight, about a 10-percent increase) will cut the standard Prius' 50-mpg fuel economy a bit. We asked some engineers about this and were told to expect a 3.5 percent reduction in fuel economy, which would bring the combined rating of the Prius PHV to 48.25 mpg.

If we compare the Prius PHV to the Volt then, we find that the breaking point is closer to 100 miles. Again, the Volt would have to use its gasoline engine for only 60 of those miles, using 1.81 gallons of gasoline in the process. The Prius PHV would be using its gasoline engine during the last 87 miles, while burning 1.80 gallons.

Some conclusions are in order, but first, let's keep in mind that these numbers are all estimates, and as they say, "your mileage will vary." While the third-generation Prius is a fairly known quantity by now, nobody has even taken retail delivery of a Volt (or a Leaf, for that matter) and the Prius PHV is still an entire model year away from production.

That said, it seems pretty clear that as long as you're driving less than 100 miles a day, the Volt will use less gas than the Prius, the most fuel-efficient hybrid on the market, or its plug-in sibling. At more than 100 miles of daily use, the Prius PHV is probably going to be more fuel-efficient than the Volt. On a slightly higher mileage regimen, over 118 miles per day, the Prius is also likely a better choice than the Volt. And the Leaf? Well, provided you never want to drive more than 100 miles in a day, it will trump them all.


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  • 162 Comments
      • 4 Years Ago
      Has anyone made the comparison on the basis of annual operating costs? It seems that would be a more meaningful comparison than mileage.
      • 4 Years Ago
      Dollars per mile or Kilowatt-Hours per mile are better ways to compare gas and electric cars. If the gas car gets 20,30,40,50 or 100 miles per gallon and gas is $3 a gallon, the $ per mile is .15, .10, .075, .06, and .03 for 100 mpg. 1 gal of gas has 37 KWH of energy, so these same cars would be using 1.85, 1.23, .925, .74 and .37 KWH per mile.
      The volt uses 10 KWH per 40 miles, which is .25 KWH per mile. At .15 $ per KWH thats about .0375 $ per mile. Same for the Leaf at 20KWH in 100 mi, which is .2KWH per mile, or .03 $ per mi. Same as a car that gets 100 mpg. Aint physics fun?
      jlsntx
      • 4 Years Ago
      I give it, the volt, about 3 years or 36,000 miles, whichever comes first, before the whole project has the proverbial plug pulled.
      • 4 Years Ago
      It ain't about insurance or even gas mileage for that matter. It ain't no joke either. Depending upon foreign oil is not good. The effects of it has long term concenquences mainly terriorism and wars.
        jlsntx
        • 4 Years Ago
        Where will we get the electricity? Do a simple google search and learn something. We make electricity in this country from 3 main sources of fuel, #1 Coal, #2 Nuclear #3 Natural gas. The others make up less than 20% of the total and could be replaced by the first three and have been any time there are outages at the other plants. WE DON'T IMPORT FUEL FOR POWER PLANTS. IT'S DOMESTIC. THE GOVERNMENT IS SELLING YOU LIES WHEN IT SAYS YOU CAN REPLACE IMOPORTED OIL WITH WINDMILLS!!!!
        • 4 Years Ago
        That last comment was hysterical! YOu should write comedy....Is the sky falling, too?
        • 4 Years Ago
        And where do you think we are going to get the electric from....DUMMY
        Master Chief
        • 4 Years Ago
        Terrorists couldn't care less about gas or oil. They blow things up strictly based on radical islamic beliefs.. We depend on foreign oil simply because the EPA thinks gas is the devil.
        robbieobern
        • 4 Years Ago
        Dependance on foreign oil is important for national security. If we didn't use foreign oil, Saudi Arabia wouldn't exist. No Saudi Arabia = No USA. Saudi Arabia is our biggest defense against terrorism. Just yesterday, it was Saudi Arabia that warned us of the packages from Yemin. We need to become LESS fuel efficient, or we all die at the hands of terrorists
      brad
      • 4 Years Ago
      I don't think anyone buys "green" cars to save money at all, just doing their part for the environment. It would be scary for a road trip to run out of "electric", so gas for now seems the way to go/ I mean hybrid.

      Here in SoCal, electric at least a large part of where I live your monthly bill goes higher the more you use it. Let me explain because that sounds dumb, I mean there are 4 tiers. Bottom one its less for per KhW, so God forbid you need the air on in the summer you pay dearly for it. It's their way of punishing you. This would make you in the highest bracket every month!
      • 4 Years Ago
      The prius is an interesting car IF you are totally dedicated to "GREEN"
      For pure comfort and 30%+ more cargo and family space in the Toyota line
      the Camry is a MUCH better buy, considerably less expensive no battery to worry about you do forsake that difference in MPG BUT , unless you drive the prius 8-12,000per year you are WAY ahead with the Toyota camry..
      • 4 Years Ago
      continuation from above comment

      40% of the driving public lives in condos and rentals. Until there is legislation requiring condo associations and landlords to give permission to install charging stations in the EV owner's parking space (at the EV owners expense) the EV industry will fail.
      • 4 Years Ago
      Does anyone remember the Edsel? At this price point and these limitations in a car crazy culture (we can't even let the companies go quietly to bankrupcy without giving them 60 billion first) it sounds like the latest version of the Edsel to me.
      • 4 Years Ago
      I've seen the Telsa and am impressed however the $106,000 price tag is a little much for my budget. I thing that will go more than 100 miles. guess I'llk keep my diesel Jetta
      achoiredtaste
      • 4 Years Ago
      Sorry but most of the Japanese cars have factories in the U.S.; don't be so damned closed-minded. Also most so called "American" cars have many major components manufactured elsewhere including (God help us) China. I love to buy American goods, but let's get real here... GM, Ford, Chrysler are WORLD companies who don't give a damn about the U.S. except as a potential market for their products. You and I care about our country but these manufacturers would just as soon build everything in China and ship it back to us to save a few dollars.
      • 4 Years Ago
      Would it be any cheaper if I were to purchase solar panel to recharge my Volt?
      CIRUS
      • 4 Years Ago
      When I charge my cell phone each night you can see after a short time that you get shorter and shorter battery life. The maintenance on replacing the batteries can't be cheap when they will have to be bought at the dealer. Doesn't this have to be figured in on the MPG or MPC ?
        fettigans
        • 4 Years Ago
        @CIRUS
        some c-phone batts. still recharge best when totally drained and then charged.
        floatgod
        • 4 Years Ago
        @CIRUS
        A battery pack costs about $8,000 to $12,000 now (not including the price to recycle or bury them). Estimated life is about 8 years. There is no indication yet that as you near the end of the battery life that its range will drop. One thing to consider: When the batteries peter out, you have an eight year old car which cannot move and you must invest $8,000 into it. Not an appealing prospect.
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