Green Car Rally: The Rookie Chevy Volt Versus the Veteran Toyota Prius

volt_priusGeneral Motors has been inundated in recent years with nothing but bad news. After filing for bankruptcy and receiving a controversial government bailout, the ailing car maker is trying to revolutionize the auto industry and breathe life back into its deflated sails with the introduction of the Chevy Volt. Considered to be an “extended-range electric vehicle” or E-REV, the Volt is set to go on sale late next year and is unlike today’s hybrids. A lithium-ion battery powers the Volt for the first 40 miles of a trip and then the gas engine kicks in to create more electricity to keep the car rolling. If recharged every 40 miles, the Volt’s owner may never need to go to the pump again. The Volt is slated to receive a 230 mpg rating (through a bit of creative math), which is impressive, but we wanted to know how it stacks up against the current hybrid front runner, the Toyota Prius.

First off, let’s take a look at Chevy Volt’s stats. The Volt does 0-60 in 8 seconds and runs on electricity for the first 40 miles, then the gas engine kicks in and recharges the battery. Once the batteries are depleted and the generator kicks in, the car has an additional 260 miles of driving range. If the Volt is driven farther than 40 miles without recharging, it will get roughly 40 mpg while running on the generator. The wheels, however, are always driven by the electric system. The Volt has to be plugged in and takes 6.5 hours to charge using a standard 100 volt home outlet. For those curious about the Volt’s electrical consumption, GM says the car, under normal driving, will consume about 2,520 kilowatt-hours of electricity annually. The company figures the car will cost 1 to 3 cents a mile to operate. Given these estimates and based on an electricity price of 11 cents per kWh, the Chevy Volt would cost around $275 a year to charge. This is just in electricity costs and doesn’t factor in the cost of gas, if needed. The Chevy Volt, however, is expected to have a price tag around $40,000. Though it is eligible for the $7,500 Federal tax credit, which was enacted to help offset the high cost of the batteries used in the Volt, it is considerably more expensive than the Toyota Prius.

The 2010 Toyota Prius, which is a gas-electric hybrid that uses both sources of energy, relies on the gas engine primarily and the electric motor is supplemental. The new Prius will come with a revised Hybrid Synergy Drive System, which will deliver even better gas mileage. The Prius can do 0-60 mph in 10 seconds and averages about 51 mpg. The Prius does not have to be plugged in because it automatically recharges using regenerative braking, or by running the on board generator. If driven 15,000 miles each year, the Toyota Prius would cost around $750 in gas. The Toyota Prius starts at only $21,000 and fully loaded, costs $32,500, which is still considerably less than the Chevy Volt.

In today’s economy very few people make buying decisions based solely on which product is better for the environment. A “greener car” debate could easily be waged on both sides here as well, but the truth is that car buying decisions come down to cold hard cash. Although the Chevy Volt offers owners the possibility of never needing another drop of gasoline, it is still economically disadvantaged due to its high initial cost. Drivers that don’t like the aesthetics of the Prius, will probably find the sleek look of the Volt more appealing.

The Prius has become a sales success for Toyota, with U.S. sales reaching a record 181,221 in 2007, before slipping 12 percent last year as auto sales plunged overall. Hopefully the Chevy Volt will see success here in the states and help ailing auto makers like GM see a future where hybrids and fully electric cars are the norm.

Cory Vanderpool joined EnOcean Alliance as the Business Development Director for North America. Prior to this role, she was Executive Director of GreenLink Alliance, a non profit organization dedicated to promoting energy conservation in buildings and tax incentives for building owners. Before establishing GreenLink, Cory worked in business development supporting a government contracting firm focused on civilian and defense markets. In addition to her work at EnOcean, Cory is also pursuing her PhD in Environmental Policy at George Mason University and is a part-time contributing writer at Triple Pundit.