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.

17 responses

  1. Cory,
    It’s a little irresponsible to show a Chevy Cruze mule in the pic and not state that in the article.

    $40k-7500 = $32,500 whicn is exactly what the loaded Prius costs. Seems to be no difference.

    Other than that, it’s a good summary of both car’s general configuration. A little pre-mature since the Volt isn’t in production.


    1. John-

      I apologize for not putting a tag on the photo as a disclaimer, but the image is demonstrate the two “competing” cars. Also, one of the issues associated with the cost of the Volt is that the potential buyers will have to come up with the total amount of the car and then apply to receive a tax rebate, which for many will be a deal breaker. I am not alone in the opinion that this car is expensive….many other bloggers and news outlets are reporting that a 40k pricetag is too much and this isn’t even the full loaded model. Of course, once the Volt is available, we will see what the sticker price is, but for now, I don’t believe people are going to bite, particularly when their pocket books are already hurting.

    1. CB- I didn’t say that the Prius starts with the gas engine, what I stated was that the Prius, unlike the Volt, relies primarily on gasoline power, meaning it uses the battery to improve its efficiency. The Volt on the other hand uses its battery to power the engine and gas is used to extend the range of the vehicle when battery power is depleted. If what I stated was unclear, I apologize, but I didn’t state what happens when the Prius starts up…only how it uses both sources of energy and which source it uses predominantly to power the car. My explanation was to show the difference in how these two cars operate. I believe my facts are sound. Feel free to cite otherwise.

    2. One more thing CB, not sure if you own a Prius, but it is not unusual for the Prius to sometimes start up at first using the gas engine and then turn over to the electric battery. This is actually meant to reduce pollution oddly enough. My best friend owns a Prius and on a couple occasions when it starts up, it initially runs on gas.

  2. The 40 miles for the Volt is merely a target. The way you drive, the topography of your trip, the condition of the roads, the ambient temperature and your use of the heater and A/C will all affect your actual range. To say you WILL get 40 miles on the battery is unfair to GM since it will create an unrealistic expectation for the prospective buyers. Please be careful in reporting this fact. Though I’m a happy Prius driver, I wish the Volt to succeed. It must deliver on its users expectations like the Prius does. It is important to deliver more than the marketing hype, not less. Many users will NOT get 40 miles per charge. This should be reported any time range is discussed.

  3. The 40 miles for the Volt is simply a mark. It depend on us how we drive, the topography of your trip, the circumstance of the roads, the ambient high temperature and use of the heater and A/C will all affect actual range.

  4. I love the Volt. It’s the first smart thing GM has done in a long time and although it obviously won’t be perfect for long commutes, I really think it will be ideal for 90% of US commuters – especially if thoughtful employers allow recharging at the office.

    Let’s put aside the nitty gritty and praise GM where praise is do. They may have brought us the Hummer, but this is a huge step in the right direction.

  5. Let us for a moment accept the manufacturers’ figures as correct, and with all other things being equal make some simple calculations.
    Cost of Volt(basic)=$40000-$7500=$32500.
    Cost of Prius (basic=$21000. Difference=$11500.
    Now assuming average operating cost of 2 cents per mile for the Volt (to be kind) versus 5 cents for Prius (€750/15000 miles), difference = 3 cents per mile.
    This translates in the Volt having to run 383,333 more mile to offset the difference in initial price incl rebate.
    While time has taught us that Priuses reach suh mileage problem-free, the same cannot be said for the Volt. So its a tall order for anyone to take the risk.

  6. This article is very disingenuous, as others point out. The 2010 Prius is extremely reliable, powerful, and here NOW. The Honda Insight was very wimpy and did not inspire much confidence at higher speeds. The 2010 Prius is a top-seller on its’ own merits, does not rely on federal govt. subsidies, and is not being kept afloat with taxpayer money. If we are a “democracy” or a “capitalist” society, GM would not even exist as a company. A better comparison would be made between the 2010 Nissan Leaf and the 2010 Prius, actual cars that actually are being produced. I think the Nissan is much more viable and runs totally on electric. The weak argument that electric runs on coal and is not better than oil. Then get your elec from solar/wind. If you live in a progressive state, you can actually do this. Southern states would not know this as the coal companies monopolize electricity production. Priusus sell on their own merits, and are not being subsidized by US taxpayers. If you have forty grand, a better bet would be to wait to buy the next-gen tesla, which is being built in Tesla’s new US taxpayer-funded factory in Delaware…and is presumed to be around 50 Gs. Tesla is also subsidized by our govt since founder comes from GM, but at least is a new company not one mired in unending failure, like GM. Why do successful companies in this country get penalized, while unending failures like GM get rewarded??? I vote Dem. after bush disaster but there is a limit to bailing out rich people. Toyota built a new factory in Tupelo MS and is still waiting for US govt. bailout $$$ to start building here and supporting US jobs.

  7. As far as I’m concerned the Volt remains vaporware until I see one on the road.
    I’ve owned hybrids since 2000 and have been happy with both my 2 seater Insight and 2nd generation Prius. My Insight continues to deliver in the 65 mpg range.

    I am tired of hearing reviews like yours emphasizing/talking about how cars look vs. how they perform in efficiency and durability. That is below sophomoric even. Detroit was distracted by that and horsepower for too long.

    Cars are not individual fashion statements, despite what advertisers would have us believe. They are transportation– and should be safe, efficient and durable. Anything else is not sustainable.

    I agree the Leaf would be a better comparison to take on, and maybe gage the results for different states by how green their grid energy is now. Also how long will the batteries on a pure eV last? We’d like to know about the mfr warranties for the drivetrain too. You can’t review vaporware on these bases.

    1. Dear Midwestern Bike Commuter- I appreciate your comments, but have to disagree with you on the point about the perceived importance about the way cars look. You are mistaken if you think that people don’t or should not care about the way a car looks. Though I don’t agree, I have heard countless times that people don’t like the look of the Prius and therefore, prefer the look of other hybrids, even though the Prius has better performance. The reality is that people do care and GM obviously realizes this. My article had only a one sentence reference to looks…that was not the main stay of this article by any means.

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