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USA: Volt Uproar! Car Owners Rally To Help As PR Guy Calls My Qualms ‘Pointless’

What happens when you’re asked to test-drive a Chevy Volt and then blog about your frustrations trying to recharge this sophisticated electric/gasoline car in our primitive world of today? I did that last week, and the feedback from Volt loyalists since then has been astonishing.

First the good news. Volt owners themselves are a smart, generally friendly bunch. They weren’t thrilled about my criticisms, but most of them wrote with an authentic American spirit of providing some neighborly help. In the comments section of the original post, they tipped me off to fresh ways of finding local charging stations, beyond what the local Volt dealership provided. They also filled me in on ways to improve my home-charging experience and buy cut-price electricity, and I’ll share those details shortly.

As for the corporate guys at General Motors’s Chevy division — yikes! My original post chronicled various stumbles by the overall GM team, including incomplete or unrealistic briefings from the local dealership at the start of the test drive, and a not-so-happy call to the OnStar advice team. This caught the eye of Rob Peterson, Chevrolet Volt communications manager, who wasn’t in the mood to play peacemaker. When he weighed in on the FORBES comments page, his 315-word response opened and ended with a sneer.

Mr. Peterson started by calling my qualms “relatively pointless.” He dismissed my fruitless hunt for a reasonably located charging station, even though my Volt dealership rep had assured me that such stations abounded. Don’t blame us, Mr. Peterson insinuated. Didn’t I know that most Volt owners “have taken the steps before purchasing to ensure they have a safe and accessible charging station where they park”?

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My first-timer’s efforts to charge the Volt at home didn’t pass the Peterson Test either. Like many people, we use our garage mostly to house bikes, gardening supplies, a workbench and the like. So it was hard to stretch the Volt’s standard-length cord from a back-wall outlet to the garage’s entryway. Tough luck. Mr. Peterson wanted me to know that the Volt “was not designed with owners of cluttered garages in mind.” His parting shot: Why didn’t I write more about the Volt’s “vanguard technology,” instead of dwelling on my “personal circumstances”?

What can I say? Getting the Volt recharged is testing the patience of first-time drivers across America, including others that GM targeted via the promotion that provided my loaner car.

A Southern California driver has no garage and parks on the street; he couldn’t access a charging outlet. Another guy traversed Seattle on a weekend, looking for a charging station that was open; he found three that were closed or off-line. Drivers with a 60-mile commute or a busy schedule found the demands of constant recharging too daunting. This woman tried using a public outlet at her condo complex, only to risk being towed for “stealing electricity.”

We all have personal circumstances. It wouldn’t hurt GM to see the world through our eyes. Millions of us live in communities where charging stations are scarce and electricity rates are high. In some Sunbelt locations, as many as 75% of us crowd our garages with so much gear that we can’t park our cars there. Please, GM, try a little harder to figure out how to make the Volt work in our world, not just in the showroom.

Fortunately, Volt owners showed greater eagerness to address my issues, and they deserve the last word. Owner Lon Cooper alerted me to a Google Maps feature that lets you type in “Electric Charging Station” followed by the name of any town. Nearby sites quickly pop up, identified by small pink flags. In my case, Google Maps still showed a dead zone in the vicinity of my home, but it provided extra choices on major commuter roads, beyond what Onstar offered. Thanks, Lon!

Two readers tipped me off to Volt user groups online. These provide guidance on heavy-duty extension cords that can pair up with the Volt’s standard charging cable — even though GM officially tells people not to use extension cords. That’s nice to know. In fact, our cluttered garage (the one that Mr. Peterson mocked) isn’t so anti-Volt after all. It happens to hold a 50-foot industrial extension cord that would have made my recharging much easier, if only GM hadn’t scared me away from that option.

Finally, Volt owner Ray Sweha tracked down the official reduced rates that Pacific Gas & Electric offers to electric-car owners in my service area. It’s too late for me, now, but if Chevy wants to make friends in any future test-drive campaigns, it ought to include a Google Maps printout of local charging stations and a copy of the electricity discount rates in each driver’s information package. A longer charging cord — or friendlier advice about extension cords — would be nice, too.



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