From Cincinnati to Seattle in a PHEV

Since I got my Chevrolet Volt about 5 months ago, curious people are always asking me questions about what it’s like to own a plug-in hybrid (PHEV). One of the most common questions I get is, “what if you need to go somewhere far away?”

This is a fair question, but only if you have no clue how these vehicles work.

I’d been using the Volt to drive 20-some miles to work and home, where I charged it on a level 2 charger. I went for weeks at a time without going to a gas station. Several different drive modes make it very efficient and provide a driving experience that, when on battery power, I feel beats my previous Mustang. However, I’m the first to admit that I hate driving purely on the gas engine. It’s just not the same.

So what about long trips? Well, there’s not much to tell; I drive it the same way I would any other car. The Volt is essentially a hybrid, so there’s a gas-powered engine too. The difference between a plug-in hybrid and any other hybrid is that it can charge and drive on pure battery power. For my Volt, that’s a range of about 42-45 miles.

When planning my move to Seattle, Washington from Cincinnati, Ohio, I knew I wanted to take my car. So, I loaded it up with my things, camping supplies for a few nights, my mom to make the journey with me and of course, a charger, and hit the road.

I had no idea what I’d be getting into since I’d never driven through – or even been to – a good portion of the states we’d be passing through. This road trip turned out to be a challenge that traversed many terrains, weather conditions and almost any other road obstacle possible. It was a trip that tested everything the car had.

Weight affects this car a lot – even adding a passenger or two makes it feel different. This time, it was a passenger plus a good majority of the things I own. That was definitely quite a load for the car. With the extra weight, acceleration was far more sluggish, and taking corners felt more like driving an SUV than the small car I was used to.

The first night on the road brought an intense midwestern storm. The rolling Iowa plains let the wind blow right over the roads and shook the car hard. Weather reports said the wind was up to 20 miles per hour, but the car handled well regardless. When the hail began, traffic slowed to 30 miles per hour on a highway that would have otherwise been 70. By the time we reached the outskirts of Omaha, Nebraska, I counted three tractor-trailers on their sides. This was not a good night to be on the road.

That first day the car handled well over 500 miles of driving before we stopped at a hotel. There, I asked the receptionist about EV charging to plug in the car. She said the hotel didn’t have any available, but to check the neighboring casino.

Checking PlugShare, an app where EV drivers share plug locations, indicated there was, in fact, a wall outlet to plug in the car’s portable charger. That was a score for me.

Day two brought another long day of driving before reaching Badlands National Park in South Dakota, the first of our planned stops. By this point, we’d covered 1,145 miles.

The Midwest is mostly flat, almost painfully so if you’re driving a hybrid. The Volt thrives on regeneration, which it didn’t get crossing flat Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa. South Dakota proved to be the same. Our luck changed when we hit the Badlands.

There, the Volt had a heyday going up and down the 30-mile loop around the rock formations. Where the Volt really shines is in stop-and-go traffic and on hills, so this was its ideal environment.

We camped that night near the park, and our site offered an electric plug. I checked to make sure the outlet was properly grounded and plugged in the car. We started the next morning without using gas, and that’s always a good way to begin the day.

Leaving Badlands meant going back into the rolling hills of South Dakota. Four hours brought us to the pass to Mount Rushmore. The monument itself is not as easily accessible, nor as visible, as I had imagined. Getting to it involved driving up a steep mountain road. This is what the Volt’s mountain drive mode was made for, so it was a perfect time to try it out. Essentially, this drive mode combines battery and backup generator power to help it climb steep hills.

I’d never had the car on grades that steep before, so this was a new experience. It almost required the pedal to be all the way to the floor at some points. However, the way down brought some serious regeneration when I put it into low.

The roads of Wyoming were where things got intense. Just before crossing the state line, we had seen snow. Yes, snow in June. Not enough to stick to the ground, just enough to question it.

And then the snow turned to hail. Luckily we were able to slip under an overpass to stay out of it, but we weren’t so lucky down the road when it happened again. Later I found that it had left a nice dent in the hood.

But we kept driving and once we got out of it, found Wyoming to be quite beautiful. The road from South Dakota to Cody, Wyoming is one where you have a choice. We passed a series of signs that suggested the better route to Yellowstone is to go all the way up to Bozeman, Montana, and then go back down. But State Route 14 looked like a far shorter route, so we decided to go that way instead. However, it runs through Bighorn National Forest.

If you know anything about Bighorn National Forest – and we didn’t – you’d know that it’s really just a miniature mountain range with a road winding through it. For us, crossing Bighorn involved pulling passes and grades that made Mt. Rushmore’s road look like the rolling hills of Iowa.

There were mile stretches on steep grades, and places where there was not as much as a guardrail keeping cars from whizzing into the gulleys stretching below. While climbing, trucks pulling fifth wheels and large SUVs whizzed past my 4-cylinder generator-powered car.

I drove this leg of the trip with one hand on the gear shift. Mountain mode was a huge help, as was low gear with sport mode.

From the bottom of this hill, it’s a flat ride through small towns to Cody. And from there, not too much of a challenge to get to the gates of Yellowstone.

Yellowstone has hills comparable to those we found in Bighorn, but not hardly the speed required, as Yellowstone’s limit is 45 miles per hour. While we did get some impressive regeneration on the downhill jaunts, I quickly realized there was no way we could have visited this park without having a gas backup. If you want to see everything you possibly can (we only had two days) you’ll spend a good majority of your time in the car.  The park’s Grand Loop alone is 142 miles, and the park itself is very remote as well. In fact, we didn’t even see as much as a Tesla in the park.

There’s very little available charging there, and essentially, no electricity. Unlike at Badlands, where electricity was available at each campsite, that’s not an option here. It would take a lot of hunting to find any sort of available charging, with so few plugs in a park so big. Knowing where they are would’ve also been helpful, but phone service is spotty there at best.

Because charging wasn’t an option at Yellowstone, we had to spend nearly $4 per gallon on premium gas. Not like my 45-electric miles would have gone incredibly far there anyways. By the time we had left Yellowstone, our info showed we had done 74.4 miles on battery – not bad considering when we left Badlands, this figure was at 40 miles. That means the car stored energy worth about 35 miles from all those hills while regenerating.

As we left Yellowstone, the landscape became less extreme and the weather more predictable. From Bozeman, Montana, we spent another long driving day in the car to Spokane, Washington. We’d crossed the border into our last state of the trip.

I was surprised that it was again hard to find a charger in Spokane, where we stayed overnight in a hotel that also didn’t have available charging. Once again, I was thankful for the ability to run on gas.

There’s no way we could have made this trip in the 6 days we did in a car that was strictly electric. Our 500 miles a day would have been nearly impossible on a limited range, and the multiple mountain passes we climbed would have eaten up battery fast. In such remote places, electricity is more of a privilege than a necessity. For this trip, a pure EV would have simply been impractical.

By the time we reached Seattle, I wanted nothing more than to unload the car and park it. Once unloaded, I found it returned to its nimble self.

The Volt is doing well here in Seattle, thriving on hills and heavy traffic. However, my new home doesn’t have a place to charge, so it looks like there may be far less electric miles in our future. But hopefully, we can get over that challenge. Because really, if it handled this trip, the Volt can take on anything.

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