Why Motor Trend and Rush Limbaugh are both wrong about the Chevy Volt

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The car world is abuzz with controversy. In the run up to going on-sale next month, the plug-in hybrid Chevy Volt is being evaluated by the press and heaped with various plaudits and awards. Right-wing pundits who haven’t even driven the Volt are also weighing in, criticizing both the government for partially funding the vehicle’s development and the publications for reviewing it positively. Most famously, Rush Limbaugh last week suggested that Motor Trend lost all credibility by naming the volt “car of the year.” The thing is, motorcycles render both sides of the argument utterly moot, even the fastest bike in the world is more fuel efficient.

The car the controversy is about is a plug-in hybrid with a 16kWh lithium-ion battery pack and a 1.4-liter gasoline engine. With a fully-charged battery, Popular Mechanics measured an average range on electricity alone of 33 miles. There’s no EPA fuel economy numbers yet, but doing some simple math, Autoblog calculates an average fuel economy on the gasoline engine alone of 33mpg. Jalopnik’s Justin Hyde tells us the Volt’s top speed is limited to 100mph and Motor Trend measured an 8.7-second 0-60 time. General Motors, which owns Chevy, likes to emphasize that the majority of vehicular journeys are under 40 miles, suggesting that there’s a strong possibility that future Volt owners will be able to do most of their driving with assistance from the battery, if not on battery power alone. Of course, saving money on fuel will cost you. The Volt will retail for $41,000 when it goes on sale in California, Texas, Michigan, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Washington DC later this year, but (this is the part Rush Limbaugh likes to emphasize) buyers will qualify for a $7,500 federal tax credit thanks to a program that President Bush implemented (Limbaugh conveniently ignores this) during his faultless presidency. State tax credits are also available, but not in the all-important state of California, where the vehicle has also been denied access to HOV lanes.

But here’s the thing, even without tax credits (which is good, because there aren’t any), for over$27,000 less than the Volt, you could drive away on a vehicle that can approach or, under some conditions, even exceed 200mph and will hit 60mph in under three seconds. If you stick to legal speeds, that same vehicle will even return superior fuel economy. 41.26mpg in fact. That super cheap, super fast, super fuel efficient vehicle I’m talking about? The BMW S1000RR, the current king of the superbike hill.

Of course, that 33mpg figure for the Volt doesn’t include any electric assistance. Justin Hyde, who’s reviewed the Volt already, tells us that GM is hoping to get an official combined fuel economy figure (that will include some electric assistance) somewhere in the mid to high 30s when the EPA finally gets its bureaucratic paws on the car later this year. Still less than that BMW superbike, but closer. Of course, you don’t need to drive a 193bhp cruise missile to out-perform the Volt, what about a lowly Kawasaki Ninja 250? It’s said to reach a top speed of 110mph and can accelerate to 60mph in less than six seconds, comfortably leaving the Chevy in its dust. It returns 61mpg (combined) according to the EPA.

“But wait!” We hear Rush Limbaugh holler through an oxycontin-induced haze, “neither of those bikes are made in America.” Well, the Buell XB12R was. Hell, it’s even powered by a Harley motor, the only thing more red, white and blue than that is getting unduly upset about healthcare reform. That American-made sportsbike, still widely available with no or low miles for even lower prices, managed to nearly double the Volt’s fuel economy on the highway with a 65mpg EPA figure. Around town? A measly 48mpg. It even manages to put out more power than the Volt’s 1.4-liter four-cylinder with an ancient 1,200cc air-cooled v-twin. While the Volt only manages 84bhp, the Buell puts out 103.

More rational humans will likely see a pro-Volt argument of another kind. As a four-door, four-seat automobile equipped with a trunk, it’s capable of carrying four homo sapiens at a time, plus their baggage. 33mpg four-up is better than 65mpg solo, right? Well, there’s two rebuttals to this argument.

One, the US Department of Energy estimates that the average occupancy rate of passenger cars is just 1.59 persons. While cars can carry more people than a bike, they often don’t.

Two, even bikes achieving more than double the Volt’s fuel economy are capable of safely and comfortably carrying two people and their luggage. In fact, the two-seat Kawasaki Eliminator 125 is capable of nearly tripling the Volt’s fuel economy with an EPA rated combined average of 95mpg.

“But, all these examples burn gasoline, emit hydrocarbons and kill polar bears!” Mumbles the tree-hugger through a mouthful of granola. That’s OK, bikes do all-electric motivation better than cars too. The Brammo Empulse 10.0 that will go on sale next year is equipped with a 10.0kWh lithium-ion battery pack and will retail for just $13,995 before tax breaks. While the Volt consumes 16kWh to travel just 33 miles, the Empulse’s official average range is 100 miles, a figure that includes 50 percent highway, 50 percent urban riding. Doing some rough math, we can see that the Volt achieves only 2.06 miles-per-kilowatt, a figure which the Empulse exceeds by five times with 10 miles-per-kilowatt. That Empulse will also outperform the Volt. Brammo hasn’t released an official top speed yet, only saying that it will exceed 100mph, but we can see that the 55bhp, 59lb/ft electric motor gives the electric motorcycle a power-to-weight ratio just under that of a Suzuki SV650 and a torque-to-weight ratio in excess of the 50mpg v-twin. Unlike the Volt, the Empulse will also be able to use California HOV lanes and even qualifies for a significant tax break in the state.

Of course, all motorcycles have one major environmental advantage that car people are utterly unable to refute. Where all four-wheelers contribute to road congestion, no matter how socialist we call them, two-wheelers do not. Every single additional car on the road, whether it be a plug-in hybrid or a giant SUV, incrementally increases the total amount of oil we consume as a nation by making traffic incrementally worse. Add up the 10,000 or so Volts GM hopes to sell in the first year and you could have one hell of a traffic jam. One that, like all others, motorcycles could quickly, easily and safely pass through while achieving excellent fuel economy. As I wrote for Newsweek, even a Toyota Prius achieves 0mpg when it’s sitting still. That applies to the Volt too. If it’s sitting still in traffic and is switched on, it will be consuming some energy, even if that’s just to power the on-board clock and brake lights. That’s energy that will have to be replaced by an external source, be it gasoline or electricity, and it’s energy that’s being needlessly wasted.

But here’s the thing that makes motorcycles really special. That S1000RR, the XB12R or even the Ninja 250 don’t force you to achieve good fuel economy by only offering laggardly performance (go ahead, try and achieve less than 30mpg in a Volt, we dare you), they can achieve truly awful fuel economy and truly stupendous performance with a mere twist of your right wrist. My dictionary defines freedom as, “the power to act, speak or think as one wants, without hindrance or restraint.” And that’s what motorcycles offer that cars like the Volt don’t, the freedom to choose if you want to save money on fuel or ride fast, the freedom to explore the limits of your own wisdom and skill, the freedom to hurt yourself if you get something wrong and the freedom to get where you’re going without sitting in traffic. I think we can all agree that freedom is good.

  • Joel

    Yes, but I can txt, talk, listen to music, read a book, do my hair, yell at the kids, and eat in my Chevy Volt! I can’t do that on a S1000RR, or at least not while it’s moving.

    (That was sarcasm, from someone who used to commute from SGV to Santa Monica on a motorcycle.)

    • Jeremy

      blue tooth+smart phone+starbucks in your camel back= yuppiecide on 2 wheels

      problem solved.

      • Mike Brooklyn

        brilliant!

  • Michael

    ahem

  • http://www.smartcycleshopper.com/author/doug-dalsing/ DougD

    Any chance you guys will add a print option to features like this? Trying to spend less time in front of my freaggin’ computer …

    But I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that the presentation of features like the Destination: Labrador piece is wicked and cool. For that, I’m willing to burn my eyes a little while longer in front of the computer.

  • http://www.tripleclamp.net Sasha Pave

    Thanks for the perspective Wes!

    Shit, you can get a Toyota Yaris for $11k and get similar gas mileage (37mpg), that leaves $30k for a few nice bikes.

    • Steve

      Or you could get a Honda Fit for $17k and get 32 mpg. Word is they are pretty fun to drive. As a reference point the Goldwing starts at $23k and gets 36 mpg.

      My commute this morning was on my 01 VFR. 44 MPG.

  • T Diver

    I’ll bet that crappy car doesn’t even have traction control.

    • seanslides

      I’m sure it’s got a similar system as the prius. You know, the kind that kills any fun dead the moment a wheel starts to slide.

  • Cajun58

    Hopefully Governor Moonbeam Pt II will let the Volt go HOV when he takes office.
    Another great thing about motorcycles in traffic: you can pass right thru on your rear (or front) wheel just to spice up your commute.

  • Rhys

    Drop by any Asian country and you can see just how mobile people can get (and how inexpensively) when cars aren’t a real option.

    It would be interesting to compare the environmental impact of a couple of hundred million people on Honda 125s (sometimes 5 up, by the way) with their SUV-loving US counterparts. Not just fuel in / emissions out, but road construction and maintenance, parking and repair costs, and death and injury tolls.

    Whatever the result, we’re going to be sitting in traffic jams until the US economy looks more like an Asian one. Oh, what’s that you say? :-)

  • DoctorNine

    Well, if you really want to make them sputter and wheeze, show them this diesel bike:

    http://www.diesel-racer.com/wp-content/postpics/diesel_military.jpg

  • Ray

    Funny how the AMA has been silent on all this all these years, and it’s up to you commie hooligans to bring it up. (Insert conspiracy theory regarding positive write-ups for various Urals) I’ve asked them to step up and promote motorcycle according to these very convincing arguments, to change its public perception, but no, just a sucking sound over there, convinced the right is the friend of motorcycling freedom, and bare scalps.

    Another convincing rationale: revitalizing downtowns and returning them to pedestrians by eliminating parking lots and vacant stretches – by virtue of the motorcycle fitting in parking spots six to one. Imagine a downtown automotive city, Austin’s the one I know best, with 5/6ths fewer parking lots and its subsequent density, allowing for mass transit, pedestrians, bicycles…

  • http://www.brammofan.com Brammofan

    I remember the good ol’ days on HFL when one could temporarily assume an identity, like, for instance, a Teutel. If that option existed today, there would be an amazingly humorous comment by Mr. Limbaugh here, instead of the usual “two thumbs up for the all-electric option!” cheerleading that I feel compelled to include.

    Great post, of course, but where’s the usual Susan Carpenter-bashing for her emissions article?

    • http://hellforleathermagazine.com Wes Siler

      Well you can change your display name if you click “profile” up top next to “Log In” or your name. :)

      • http://www.brammofan.com Brammofan

        Yeah, but it’s only temporary — I can’t be Rush forever. And yet, my Paul Teutel Sr. comments will live on forever.

        I ask for too much; this I know. Just keep writing the good sh!t and ignore my occasional grumbling.

  • http://www.thisblueheaven.com Mark D

    Very well written article, I’ll pass it along to as many smug Cantabrigian greenies as I can.

    Another great thing about motorcycles is that they chew up far less asphalt than an 8,000 lb SUV. That’s less road construction, less bridge re-building, less traffic, less potholes…

    I do think you’re being a bit unfair to the poor volt. I know you’re just trying to temper the extreme opinion on the car, but I’m genuinely excited about, if not the car itself, what its development will mean in 10 or 15 years. After all, think of how much cheaper batteries for Brammos will be after GM places an order for 10,000 Volts!

    • BrammoBrian

      Hmmm… *note to self*… design bikes with Volt batteries…

  • http://pinkyracer.com pinkyracer

    “even the fastest bike in the world is more fuel efficient.”

    wow. I got the wrong superbike. My ’09 R1 has a fuel efficiency gauge (average and on-the-fly, which can be quite a distraction) and tells me my average mpg is 20. It skyrockets to about 25 mpg on the highway. It’s embarrassing, as I claim to care about the planet.

    Who rode that Beemer to get 41mpg? Yer grandma?

    Counting the days till my Brammo Empulse 100 rolls off the assembly line…

    • seanslides

      My gxsr 600 gets an easy 47 mpg spiltting lanes through LA traffic at 50mph. And 23 or so on the track. Riding habits have a pretty big impact on fuel economy.

    • http://www.flickr.com/photos/1962_cb77_restore/ Scott Pargett

      I have a 2010 Triumph Street Triple (675) that gets 55mpg on the freeway and around 35 on the street. And that’s having plenty of fun with it.

    • Bronson

      Shit, I can even get 35mpg on my KTM supermoto… and that’s ripping wheelies all day long ;-)

      • http://pinkyracer.com pinkyracer

        see, little bikes are the answer. I knew I shoulda got an 848 instead of yet another R1…

  • markbvt

    The other environmental advantage of motorcycles: they consume far fewer resources to build and transport to dealerships than cars do.

    And they’re a hell of a lot easier to find parking for.

  • JRl

    Although I totally agree, there are just too many blackberry toting “soccer moms”, fat/lazy business men, and weirdos who have to be constantly prepared to pick up a pallet of baby diapers from Costco on a whim or drive over the median in case the apocalypse occurs. Don’t forget about the people who are scared to end up in the HFL Scar Off…

    Motorcycles are and always will be a niche in the great USandA. We are accustom to our ways and it will take Europe level gas prices for people to even start thinking other options.

    To top it off, how many of those people who even consider a change are going to make that big of a leap?

    The real solution is to convince people that if you’re just commuting to work 5 days a week; it’d probably be more ECONOMICAL (and earth friendly) to have a 2 vehicles; 1 for commuting and the other for taking the kids to Disneyland and fucking the babysitter.

  • http://www.ninja250blog.com R.Sallee

    Careful pulling the green card, the emissions controls on our bikes are way smaller and less effective than those on cars. Gas mileage is only one aspect that’s been overly emphasized since PZEVs and Gore’s carbon scare.

    Also, the underlying theme here seems to be a push for mainstreaming motorcycles. More people on bikes will bring more legislation restricting our fun. Be careful what you wish for.

    • tomwito

      Agreed, I have read where bikes actually pump out more hydrocarbons because they run at a much higher RPM.

  • tomwito

    This is apples and oranges. Are you really trying to bash the volt by comparing it to sportbikes. Didn’t you guy just put out the article the problem with sportbikes? I have to get 3 kids to school in the morning, let me convince my wife that we need a Ducati Streetfighter and I’ll just fab up a rack. This was a dumb article.

    • http://hellforleathermagazine.com Wes Siler

      I think the point was more that motorcycles should be a part of the fuel economy/transportation debate than trying to suggest that they’re the only vehicle in town.

    • FFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFF

      ^ Agree
      We all love bikes on this site, but I’m feeling a little bit patronized after reading this.
      Having been to a few places in Asia, I can say that riding 5 up on a 125 is not safe. In Thailand (and elsewhere) it’s pretty common to sit your toddler in your lap while you ride your scoot down a dirt road from one jungle to the next. Hardly anyone outside the cities wears a helmet. I know you’re not actually *for* this type of thing, but you brought up the state of motorcycling in Asia as something to which we should aspire.
      Car culture run amok needs to be overhauled, but to compare it to bike culture gone wild is hogwash.

      • http://hellforleathermagazine.com Wes Siler

        Compare the US instead to Europe, where bikes offer an affordable, convenient alternative to solo commuters.

        • FFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFF

          There’s less suburban sprawl in Europe, yet apparently more congestion. This is admittedly a broad comparison, but it does make me wonder what kind of an impact plentiful motorcycles are actually making.
          Circa 2002/3
          Average commute times:
          Italy: 23 minutes
          Spain: 33 minutes
          France: 36 minutes
          EU average: 38 minutes
          Netherlands: 43 minutes
          Germany: 44 minutes
          UK: 45 minutes
          http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/3085647.stm

          US: 24 min national average, NYC: 38 min

          • FFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFF

            That said, the bike commuters are probably tearing that number to shreds, but motorcycling isn’t solving the societal problem as it is. The US figure was from the Census Bureau.

          • http://hellforleathermagazine.com Wes Siler

            Smaller, fewer, more outdated roads are going to be a huge part of that, as is much higher population density. Plus, you can scoot right through that traffic legally anywhere in the world outside of 49 states.

            • FFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFF

              All those small, outdated roads are inside comparatively pedestrian-friendly cities, with established bicycle subcultures and progressive public transit policies. The biggest US cities are just as population dense as the European capitals. Hybrid car subsidies are just one facet of our government’s misguided stance on transportation. LA has only recently put up signs telling motorists to pass no closer than 3 feet from a cyclist, along with other progressive stuff, but LA has been rife with cyclists for years now. The best solution to it all is probably light/ high speed rail, which is the only thing that allows ultradense, ultracongested metro Japan to put up numbers comparable with the EU & US. But, have you ever been on one of those trains?

              • http://hellforleathermagazine.com Wes Siler

                That’s why I ride bikes :)

          • http://pinkyracer.com pinkyracer

            really? I thought the average LA commute was 1 hour (by car). And those stats are completely different for car, bike, bicycle, and public transit. Of course they’re complaining about long commutes in London, have you seen the price of real estate there? Bigger bubble than LA, so it seems.

            So loads of people moved out of town and drive in to work, like here. I’ve scootered in Rome and Barcelona, at rush hour, and it is faster than the metro. Even the cars are able to keep moving, you don’t get the sort of gridlock you see in NYC, LA, Atlanta…

  • http://www.firstgenerationmotors.blogspot.com Emmet

    As Cher put so eloquently, hybrids are “Pretty much all bullshit.” Car companies are eagerly pushing their expensive-yet-fuel-efficient cars down our throats. Does anyone realize the ridiculous maintenance cost to repair the electrical drivetrain? Has anyone calculated the cost of ownership verses the fuel cost savings? It would takes years of high mileage driving to reap the benefits.

    A quick look at the European market and you will see that close to 80% of all cars have manual transmissions and that roughly half are diesel. I have lived in Prague, Czech Republic for the past 3 months and I have yet to see just one hybrid vehicle. It seems that Europeans already have a more efficient infrastructure, whereas the hybrid vehicles in America suggest our reluctance to make any major changes.

    I see your argument for motorcycles as more than a recreational form of transportation, but maybe comparing it to the S1000rr was a bit misplaced (considering your recent article ‘The trouble with sportbikes’).

    • Devin

      I think the intent was to convey that even the sportiest, fire-breathing tire-shredding track monster of a sportbike has more green benefits than the elitric car solution that is being pushed by by the Gov’t and the media right now.

    • Myles

      Diesel is popular in Europe because of tax rates. That’s it.

      As to “pretty much all bullshit” – couldn’t disagree more. I had a gen1 Honda Insight for years, and ran it to over 180k miles. No issues with the hybrid system at all. That car gave me zero issues, i also did a great job “teaching” driving patterns – only had to replace brakes ONCE in all those miles. Lifetime average of over 60mpg. Weighed 1800lbs. Standard shift. Great great great car.

      As to current Hybrids, how the hell are they expensive?! Expensive compared to what, a used 1998 Ford Taurus? The current average sale price of a new car in the US is 30k, most hybrids are well below this mark – even with heavy options. Some people just want an easy to drive vehicle with a ton of space, decent stereo, and a nav system. I mean, a cage is a cage. So that’s what I did, bought another insight. I don’t really understand why everyone doesn’t have a hatchback and a bike. One of my buddies just bought an m3. What a pig – that’s what I don’t understand. Why does ANYONE buy a performance car and not a bike? I would understand a performance car in addition to a bike – but just a performance car?! Slow, heavy, expensive, completely disconnected from the road. Those are the real pussies, not the people who drive hybrids.

      • eric

        i replaced the brakes on my work truck for the first time at 101k. and it tows 9000 pounds daily. i fail to see your reasoning about diving patterns

  • Steve

    I find that in general price of manufactured products is proportional to the energy that goes into the production process. So with the Volt costing $41k, roughly $20k more than a similarly capable car, you are going to have to realize $20k in energy savings to make the proposition pay. And that $20k must be saved before the batteries peter out and requiring replacing in 8-10 years for another $5-10k. Tough to make the math work.

    As a side note, Cadillac is exploring how to market to US consumers the idea that a small car can be luxurious. Seems we Americans are hung up on Bigger is Better.

    To follow up on Emmet’s comments: VW and Audi do import to the US small luxurious cars. My VW GTI has most of the goodies found in a Caddy or Lexus and gets 28 mpg real world cross country driving in TX at 85 mph plus. VW is said to be still be losing money in the US.

  • CG

    Listening to Rush right now*. But I am used to the bashing, I’ve lived in and around a city that votes 90% opposite to me for about 3 decades now. I must admit, as a person who mainly commutes via mc (ah, HOV lanes for the single person), I do not understand why more people don’t- note- not today though (20 degrees, snow). It rains a lot here, but still. I would suggest that Minneapolis might be a tough place to commute by bike 12 months a year (studs?). It is also worth noting that as soon as them there Asian peoples can afford a car, the bike gets passed on to someone else. Also, if I could get more than 5k miles out of my tires I would be happier with the gas mileage, although that might have to do with how I ride it on weekends.

    *ooh, a cigar commercial, my other bad habit…

    • FFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFF

      Good point- mc use in much of the developing world isn’t some enlightened eco-friendly, urban planning decision. It’s because people are destitute. This was alluded to earlier when someone mentioned our society switching to more motorcycles after the economy truly crashes.

      • http://hellforleathermagazine.com Wes Siler

        Again, you don’t need to go to the third world to find motorcycles being used successfully as mainstream transportation. A quick flight to London, Paris, Berlin, Milan or Barcelona will show you just how valuable two-wheelers can be.

  • Your_Mom

    Pointing out that Mr. Limbaugh is wrong about the Volt is like saying sugar is sweet and Bush was an inarticulate buffoon.

  • Ray

    Sidecars make winter riding possible, but still pretty butch, and they offer a means to get kids to school. They are a compromise between two and four-wheelers.

    At one point I thought it would be fun to build a stretched motorcycle that could carry four passengers in line. Are there legal limits to the passenger capacity and geometry of motorcycles?

    • http://www.thisblueheaven.com Mark D

      Motorcycle + beater Subaru wagon = Aristotelian transportation ideal

    • JRl

      You should make a BIKE-BUS! Oh man, I can seez it now! People can hop on and off as they please.

  • Your_Mom

    Oh – I get an honest 40mpg commuting in comfort in my Passat TDI.

  • super20

    Since it’s Thanksgiving, Thanks, Wes.

    I manage an overall 40 MPG on my Buell 1125R, and on long freeway trips that goes up to well over 45 MPG even at “slightly” over the posted limit with luggage. I commute on it most days until the snow flies in the NE and even though lane splitting is illegal, a few well timed lane “changes” gets me past the usual bottlenecks on my way to and from work.

    Not to mention a bike takes fewer resources to manufacture and there’s less to dispose of when it wears out.

  • Steven

    Six months late, but the other way that new motorcycles out-green any car you can name is that there’s 1,500 fewer pounds of steel, plastic, and other materials in them.