Chevy's Volt and Toyota's Prius – An Apples-to-Apples Comparison

After years of declining sales and shrinking market share, General Motors appears poised to revolutionize the ailing auto industry with its introduction of the Chevy Volt. The Volt, which is set to launch next year, differs from other gas-electric hybrid vehicles currently on the market in that it is an “extended-range electric vehicle” or E-REV.

The Volt will rely on a lithium-ion battery pack for power up to a 40-mile range. At that point, a gasoline engine will kick in to generate additional electricity. In theory, if a drive recharged the battery every 40 miles, he or she might never have to pump another drop of fuel into the tank. GM has claimed a fuel-efficiency rating of 230 mpg for the Volt.

Many in the auto industry see the Volt as the consummate challenger to Toyota’s Prius gas-electric hybrid which has dominated the hybrid sector since its introduction in the mid-90s.

So how does the Volt stack up to the perennial favorite in an apples-to-apples comparison?

For starters, the Volt is capable of going from 0-60 in 8 seconds with an all-electric driving range of 40 miles on power provided by its lithium-ion battery pack. Once the battery pack becomes depleted, the vehicle’s gasoline engine powers the generator which delivers electricity sufficient to add an additional 260 miles to the vehicle’s range before recharging is required. The Volt’s fuel-efficiency rating while operating under the gas powered generator is approximately 40 mpg.

Recharging requires the Volt to be plugged in to an electrical outlet. When using a standard 100 volt outlet, recharging takes approximately 6.5 hours. GM claims that the Volt will consume approximately 2,520 kilowatt-hours of electricity under normal driving conditions. Base on those calculations, GM claims the vehicle will cost between one and three cents per mile to operate.

Assuming a cost of 11 cents per kilowatt-hour for electricity, some have estimated the average annual cost to charge the Volt at around $275. The cost for gas, if needed, would be additional.

Although GM has not disclosed the sticker price for the Volt most industry experts expect it to be around $40,000. Under the current Federal tax code, the Volt will qualify for a $7,500 tax credit which was enacted to offset the high price of Lithium-ion batteries which have been adopted by a number of automakers.

The Prius gas-electric hybrid relies primarily on its gas engine for power, and Toyota claims that its new 2010 Hybrid Synergy Drive System will deliver even better fuel-efficiency than the current EPA estimate of 51 mpg. The Prius is capable of accelerating from 0-60 in 10 seconds and does not require recharging from an electrical outlet. Recharging of the Prius is achieved automatically through regenerative braking and its onboard, gas powered generator. Assuming current gas prices, the annual fuel cost for a Prius that is driven 15,000 miles under normal driving conditions is about $750. Compared to the estimated $40,000 sticker price for the Volt, the Prius’ base price starts at around $21,000. A fully loaded model runs around $32,000, which is about the estimated cost of the Volt after taking the $7,500 tax credit.

In the final analysis, consumers tend to base their auto buying decisions on the initial purchase price. For that reason, some argue that the Volt’s higher expected sticker price will be a disadvantage when competing against the Prius. Others, however, point to the Volt’s sleeker styling as an advantage and cite this year’s 12% drop in domestic Prius sales as a sign that American consumers are eager for an alternative.

For now, the debate must be waged on hypothetical grounds. Although the Chevy Website claims a launch date of 2010, some have speculated that it may be pushed back until early- or even mid-2011.

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