Posts Tagged ‘mid-sized sedan’


Running on E: The Chevy Volt Hits the Road

September 20, 2011

By Roger Witherspoon

What was left of Hurricane Lee was rapidly losing steam.

The rainfall had eased from a blinding deluge dropping two inches per hour, to a gentle, late summer rain. And the long distance haulers were taking advantage of the relative lull to make up for lost time by racing their big rigs up the New England interstate.

The speedometer approached 70 as I eased from the long entrance lane onto the right lane of US I-84 near the New York-Connecticut border – an unremarkable speed in normal circumstances, but close to excessive on this rain-slicked roadway. My visibility was suddenly poor: the rain was no match for the windshield wipers on the electric Chevy Volt, but the water pouring from the huge tires of the 18-wheeler in the middle lane next to me created the highway equivalent of a surfer going through a fast-curling Pacific wave off the Hawaiian coast.

Suddenly, I realized the wave was closing and the wheels of the big rig were getting closer. The truck was moving into my land and, with the Chevy lost in the water wall thrown up from the tires, the driver couldn’t see me.  There was no shoulder, and the shortest route to safety lay straight ahead. So I floored the accelerator.

There was no satisfying, accompanying engine rumble since the Volt’s 111 kilowatt, electric engine runs silent. But it does deliver 273 pound-feet of torque directly to the axels, and there was a satisfying feel of gravity pushing me deeper into the leather seats as the volt shot forward. In seconds, the speedometer hit 95 and the traction control fought to keep the car running straight on the soaked roadway as the car just cleared the rumbling truck’s front bumper.

            It took less than a minute for the latest innovation from General Motors to show that it could compete with front running family sedans in terms of performance and handling. And in developing the Chevrolet Volt, GM has staked out a unique technological course in a newly evolving field of hybrid electric transportation. Whether the Volt and its successors will catch on with the car buying public, however, is still an open question?

The Volt is the third and, perhaps, the most versatile of the mass produced electric vehicles aimed at the general public, charting a different course than the Nissan Leaf and the Toyota Prius Hybrid Plug-in Electric ( ).

Toyota was the first off the electric block but is entering the market tentatively. The company is circulating 160 of the Plug-in Hybrids around the country at this time, gathering user feedback in anticipation of a formal launch next year. The initial Prius was revolutionary in that Toyota envisioned and developed a car which could fully operate on two different power plants. The new plug-in goes a step further, allowing you to drive with three power systems.

The hybrid power systems are standard. What is different is that the new battery pack powers the electric motor for about a half hour, or 13 miles, at speeds up to 60 miles per hour. After that, the charge is depleted and the car reverts to the standard hybrid combination with the interplay between the gas engine and electric motor.  The electric motor can drive the car unaided at speeds up to about 25 miles per hour. After that, the Prius either uses both the gasoline engine and the motor or, at high speeds, just the gasoline engine. The difference the additional of the plug-in component makes in terms of gas mileage is incremental: the 13 miles running solely on electric power just extends the miles per gallon average of the car.

Nissan, on the other hand, completely bit the electric bullet with its Leaf. It has only an electric motor. The drawback, however, is that the car can get only about 75 miles before it needs a new charge – which can take eight hours.  That makes it a perfect car for getting around in small towns or daily commutes within traffic-snarled metropolises like New York. But it is fairly useless for vacation trips and could be problematic in sprawling cities like Los Angeles. Nissan is banking on the Leaf being the preferred car of the future, when the electric charging infrastructure is as ubiquitous around the nation as the gas pump. But selling that notion now is a challenge.

With the Chevrolet Volt, GM is hedging its bets with what amounts to a reverse hybrid. With this sedan, only the electric motor can power the car, and a full charge – which takes 10 hours on a normal 110-volt outlet – will provide the equivalent of just 31 gas-free miles. The mileage is not absolute because sitting in New York City traffic, for example, can eat up with charge without the car physically going very far.

But after the charge is used up the small, 1.4-liter gasoline engine kicks in. It will not drive the Volt, but it serves as a generator to keep the battery charged to power the electric motor. That combination – an electric motor with a gasoline battery charger – gives the Volt its driving range of about 330 miles between visits to a traditional gas station.  It is also what gives the Volt an EPA estimated mileage of 37 MPG on the highway, and a whopping 93 MPG in city driving.

The interplay between the gas engine and the battery required some tradeoffs. It provides enough juice to keep the car going, but not enough to fully charge the battery while the car is being driven and bypass the need for the 10-hour battery charge.

Pam Fletcher, the chief engineer of the Volt, said “there is always some minimum buffer in the battery to drive the car. The Volt’s engine uses about 65 percent of the battery’s capacity, and the internal combustion engine charges enough to maintain that minimum state of power. It does not power it back up to full.

“Our philosophy was if you want to go from the minimum state of the battery up to a full charge, you have to get that energy off the grid, where it is less expensive and more efficient to generate. And it is likely that the electricity you get from the grid will be generated in an environment with more easily treated emissions than those from a bigger internal combustion engine.”

Getting power off the grid is not free. Charging the Volt nightly can boost the electric bill of a three-bedroom home as much as 50%, according to some industry estimates.  In high utility rate areas like New Jersey and New York, that means the savings you get by having less frequent trips to the gas station is nearly offset by the monthly electric bill.

The Volt does have some of the battery-charging features of the standard hybrid, such as regenerative braking, which converts the heat in the brake shoes to electricity. But it would take a bigger engine and batteries with greater storage capacity to have the4 Volt fully charged while on the go –and that would drive up its already hefty price of nearly $45,000.

Aside from the power plant technology the Volt is, above all, a family car, and it will be on the road competing with mid-sized sedans such as the Nissan Altima, Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla – which all have much lower sticker prices, and higher gasoline bills. In that regard, what has GM done?

Outside, the Volt is as sleek as its name implies. Its wide front and split grill could be viewed as aggressive were it not for the curved headlights which turn the metal grimace into more of a smile. The long, sloping hatch back ends in a raised spoiler instead of fading into the bumper, which gives the Volt more the appearance of a sporty, four-door coupe.

Inside, the Volt is a spacious sedan with the trimmings you would expect in a car with this price tag, and a few designs that may take some adjustment. The leather seats are wide, comfortable, and can be heated, which is particularly useful.

The dials on the dashboard are novel. There is a blue column showing the amount of electricity in the battery, which runs down as the battery is used up. And there is a green floating ball resembling a suspended Earth which monitors the Volt’s power flow. The center console is a white plastic with raised letters for Climate, Radio, and other controls, all activated by lightly touching them. Women who got into the Volt uniformly disparaged it as the controls of a blender. 

But it is efficient. The rear backup camera is crystal clear. The navigation system is easy to use with a seven-inch LCD screen and, for communication, there is either the Bluetooth linking your cell phone to the car’s audio system, or GM’s satellite-based OnStar system.  Live help at OnStar can provide turn-by-turn directions if you prefer that to the lady robot in the navigation system.

For entertainment, the Volt offers everything. There is a CD player, AM/FM and XM satellite radio, and connections for the iPod, MP3 player, or USB port. In addition, there is a 30 gigabyte hard drive to download a few thousand of your favorite songs and create your own travelling juke box.

For a hatchback, the Volt is surprisingly spacious. It is about the length of a Honda Civic, but has more interior leg room, so a pair of six-footers can actually ride in comfort in the rear seats. 

The Volt is a smart entry into the plug-in world, since an infrastructure for all around use does not yet exist for fully electric cars. Whether it catches on, or becomes a transitional vehicle as the electric infrastructure matures will be determined by events unfolding over the decade.

The Volt is a stylish, versatile, comfortable, sporty sedan which is dependable in a variety of road conditions. It will give the other electric road runners – and quite a few gas guzzlers – a quiet run for the money.

2011 Chevrolet Volt


MSRP:                                                            $44,680

EPA Mileage:                        93 MPG City              37 MPG Highway

Top Speed:                                                     100 MPH


Performance / Safety:


111 Kilowatt electric motor and 1.4-liter gasoline engine delivering 84 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of torque; 5-speed automatic transmission; front wheel drive; independent MacPherson strut front suspension; torsion beam rear suspension; lithium-ion battery; antilock and 4-wheel disc brakes; stability and traction control; 17-inch forged painted aluminum wheels; rear vision camera; dual stage, frontal, knee and side-impact airbags.

Interior / Comfort:


AM/FM/XM satellite radio; Bluetooth and OnStar communications; Bose audio system with 6 speakers; CD player; 30 GB hard drive; USB port; iPod and MP3 connection; navigation system with 7-inch LCD screen; tilt and telescoping, leather wrapped steering wheel with fingertip audio and cruise controls.




The VW Jetta: Running With the Big Boys

February 9, 2011

By Roger Witherspoon

The mix of sleet and snow left the driveway covered with five inches of ice leading to an ice-covered street. The city’s snow plows had succeeded only in putting ice blockades in front of every driveway, and packing the streets’ ice surface till they were hard and slick enough for qualify for National Hockey league play.

But on this frigid, gray morning staying home was not an option. I poured a cup of tea and then, while it brewed, went outside and pushed three buttons: The first button started the ignition of the five-cylinder Volkswagen Jetta; the second began heating the driver’s soft leather seat; and the third defrosted the side mirrors. Then I went back inside to savor the tea and watch the bad weather deteriorate.

Inevitably, it was time quit procrastinating and leave. Driving on ice can be problematic for even the best of cars. For the traction control to work properly, at least one all-weather or winter tire has to grip something solid – even if just for a fraction of a second. In this case, the front wheel drive Jetta’s 17-inch wheels and Continental, all-weather tires treated that ice as just another hard surface and the car moved easily forward, crunched over the ice mound at the end of the driveway and smoothly rolled down the street. It wasn’t a bad way to start the day.

The new 2011 Jetta is a mid sized sedan which seeks to offer a lot in a package that’s just shy of $25,000. It needs to offer a lot, since this is a crowded field with fierce competition in style, perks, and performance from auto makers in Detroit, Japan and Korea.  But in many ways, VW succeeded in crafting a visually appealing, comfortable, workhorse of a sedan.

Their top of the line SEL model with the power sunroof has a sleek profile and a long, sloping front reminiscent of sportier sedans. Under that long hood is a five cylinder engine cranking out just 170 horsepower. But this is a relatively light car and, with a top speed of 127 miles per hour, it won’t linger at the rear of the motoring pack or need a push to get up steep hills. It drinks regular gas and, according to the EPA, gets 24 miles to the gallon in city driving and 31 MPG on the highway – which isn’t bad for a mid sized sedan.

Inside is a pleasant surprise. The design is relatively simple – its flat dash does not have the wavy flair of the Hyundai Sonata, for example. But the use of real and faux leather interspersed with brushed aluminum is pleasant and looks more expensive than it is. In addition, at this price, cloth seats and limited entertainment options – which are normal on many mid-sized sedans – could be expected. But the Jetta has wide, leather seats, though the front pair are manually adjustable. The rear seats, which can fold down to expand the trunk area, provide more than a yard of leg room  and can easily accommodate passengers on the high side of six feet tall.

It comes with an easy to use navigation system, and while the five-inch screen is small, it is easy to see and, paired with the Sirius satellite radio, provides up to the minute traffic and weather alerts. The navigation screen also provides a useful and rarely seen feature: a box in the upper left corner showing the posted speed limit for whatever street you are driving on. The touch screen also makes it easy to use the entertainment functons.

In addition to satellite radio, the Jetta’s entertainment system includes a single CD player, as well as an MP3 and iPod connection. There is also an easy to pair Bluetooth cell phone connection which automatically reconnects every time you turn the car on. The phone and entertainment functions can be accessed on the dash, via fingertip controls on the leather steering wheel, or by using voice commands.

The doors lock automatically after the car starts moving, and this function can only be turned off at the dealership. It’s annoying to park, go to retrieve your briefcase from the back seat, only to find the rear door still locked. Volkswagen’s engineers should have included an on/off switch for those who don’t like being locked in by robots. But that’s a minor point.

The new Jetta packs a lot into a mid-sized package, making it a viable option in a hotly contested field.



2011 Volkswagen Jetta SEL

MSRP:                                                                       $24,165

EPA Mileage:                        24 MPG City                          31 MPG Highway

Performance / Safety:

0 – 60 MPH                            8.2 Seconds

Top Speed:                             127 MPH

2.5-Liter, 5-cylinder, aluminum alloy engine producing 170 horsepower and 177 pound/feet of torque; 6-speed automatic transmission; independent front struts; semi-independent rear; front & rear power assisted disc brakes; 17-inch alloy wheels; fog lights; heated mirrors; halogen head lamps; traction and stability controls; driver & front passenger front and side airbags; front and rear, side curtain, head impact airbags.

Interior / Comfort:

AM/FM/Sirius satellite radio; Bluetooth; CD and MP3 player; iPod connection; navigation system with 5-inch touch screen; tilt & telescoping steering wheel with fingertip phone, entertainment, and cruise controls; power sunroof;  leather seats, heated in front, fold flat in rear.


Road Running in the Zoom – Zoom 6

July 31, 2010

By Roger Witherspoon

The distinctive shape of the Pentagon served as a growing beacon through the windshield of the Mazda 6, seeming to draw more and more motorists to the highway heading towards the nation’s capital. Some of them paid more attention to the sights in the distance than to the vehicles around them.

A minivan in a hurry suddenly entered the highway from the right, the driver not bothering to see if any cars were already in the lane he was lumbering into. In an instant, I realized I was about to be rammed and the midday motoring crowd did not leave a lot of room for maneuvering.

I hit the chrome gearshift, taking the transmission out of automatic and putting it into manual mode. Then I downshifted to fourth gear and floored the accelerator. The Mazda’s power plant is small: just 2.5 liters cranking out 170 horsepower. The little engine whined, but the sedan shot forward as I changed lanes, with just inches separating me from the side of the minivan and its oblivious driver. After that episode, sightseeing in Washington DC was a treat.

The zoom-zoom guys from Mazda have been running a series of  laid back commercials with  young motorists tooling around in Mazdas festooned with little blue and white flags, having too much fun behind the wheel to return the car to the show room.  And on a long trip, from the bumper-to-bumper streets of New York City, past the Jersey Shore, through the nation’s capital to the wide open, meandering roads through the Virginia horse country, the Mazda is a comfortable car to use to see the countryside.

This is not a sports car, regardless of the zoom-zoom handle. The Mazda 6, the company’s mid sized sedan, is designed for affordable touring, and has enough amenities, comfort and room for four large adults. Or, if you have three children, the rear center seat is actually large enough for the trio to ride without constantly fighting for space.

The exterior of the Mazda 6 has the trademark, wide front wheel wells, which get even more pronounced on its sport cars. But on the sedan, serve to distinguish the Mazda from other sedans on the road, such as the Subaru Legacy or Nissan Altima, or Toyota Corolla. Mazda’s designers, however, seem to have saved most of their creative efforts for the interior.

The seats are wide, padded, soft, leather with double cable stitching to set it off. The front seats can be heated, if the season calls for it, and are power adjustable. On long trips, these seats are not an enemy, and the leather padding on the arm rests are also appreciated.

On the entertainment side, the Mazda 6 comes with a six-disc CD player as well as an iPod and MP3 connection, and USB port. There is the standard AM/FM radio, and XM satellite radio. Whether one prefers talk, hard rock or soft jazz, the sounds emanate from a 10-speaker Bose system which provides a seamless envelope at speeds under about 45 miles per hour. At faster speeds, the wind noise intrudes – which would probably just blend into heavy metal music, but wrecks havoc with jazz solos from Miles or Chick Corea. The sedan could use more sound shielding – but that would probably push up the $31,000 price tag, a reasonable figure for a fully loaded, mid-sized sedan.

The interior of the Six is larger than one would think. There is about a yard of air separating the front of the back seat from the back of the front seats – providing comfortable room for a car load of six footers. The ceiling over the back seats even curves up  about an inch to ensure head room for tall guys or bouffant hair-dos.

The trunk is large enough for a week’s worth of luggage and laptops. But if transporting an Olympic ski team where extreme length is required, the rear seats fold down in a 60/40 split.

There are also a couple of safety touches in the Six. In addition to fog lights, the car has side radar monitoring the vehicle’s left and right blind spots. If there is a car in either location, warning lights in the shape of a car flash on the corresponding side view mirror. The innovation is particularly helpful in traffic or bad weather conditions.

If there is a complaint about this basically well made car, it is in the choice of navigation systems. On the plus side, it has an 8-inch touch screen and is easy to use or program. On the downside, the robot lady who offers directions is, apparently, an immigrant who does not understand the difference between the American directional idioms for “turning” and “bearing”. The different can be critical at highway interchanges where the main exit off the highway divides into several additional exits and “bearing right” means passing up the first right “turn.” It takes the robot lady about 100 feet past an exit to realize the difference and up to a mile to figure out just how lost you are. The system also lacks software allowing for traffic updates and rerouting around tie-ups or severe weather.

But that’s a minor matter of personal pique. In general, the zoom-zoom boys have produced a competitive, comfortable, affordable, attractive sedan for all occasions.

2010 Mazda 6 GT

MSRP:                                                                       $30,765

EPA Mileage:                        21 MPG City                          30 MPG Highway

As Tested:                  23.3 MPG Highway

Performance/ Safety:

2.5-Liter, 4-cylinder, DOHC engine producing 170 horsepower and 167 pound/feet of torque; 5-speed automatic transmission; independent front & rear suspension; 4-wheel disc brakes; traction and stability control; fog lights; 17-inch alloy wheels; passing radar warning; dual front air bags; side air bags and air curtains.

Interior / Comfort:

AM/FM/XM satellite radio; 10-speaker Bose sound system; 6-disc CD player; MP3, iPod, and USB music ports; tilt & telescoping leather steering wheel with fingertip audio, cruise command, and Bluetooth controls; touch screen navigation system; power and heated, leather front seats; fold-flat rear seats with a 60/40 split; power sun roof.

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