Thumbs Up: A fun-to-drive extended range EV.
Thumbs Down: The most misunderstood and politicized car in history, busy center stack.
Buy This Car If: You want an EV but can’t give up internal combustion practicality.
I’m no stranger to the Chevrolet Volt, and consider myself one of the car’s biggest fans. Mike and I had the opportunity to drive a Volt from New York City to Detroit last November, and the car impressed me quite a bit more than I expected it would. Six months later, the Volt remains perhaps the most politicized car in the history of the auto industry, with detractors willing to ignore facts in the name of sensationalism. I’m not going to swing anyone over to my side with a a single review, but I know this: during my time with the Volt, I was able to set the record straight for half a dozen people who had previous misconceptions about the car.
Hype aside, what’s most impressive about the Volt is how well it works as an automobile, not just as an EV or serial hybrid. Despite critics who cry the Volt is “just another hybrid”, it isn’t: unlike regular (parallel) hybrids, the Volt’s propulsion comes exclusively from an electric motor, which draws power from a on-board 16 kW lithium-ion battery pack. When the pack is depleted, in approximately 36 miles, a range extending generator powers up to supply current to the motor; in this mode, the Volt works much like a diesel-electric locomotive.
Back to the conventional, or parallel, hybrid for a moment. While some can operate for a limited range at a limited speed on battery power alone, their primary propulsion system remains the gasoline engine. Electric power is used primarily to supplement the power produced by the small gasoline engine, which is one reason that hybrids get superior fuel economy.
“But the Volt is also powered by the engine. I’ve seen it on TV!” is often the rally cry of Volt detractors, and while not specifically false, that rumor isn’t entirely true, either. Think of how an electric motor works: at zero RPM, the motor already makes peak torque. As you increase the motor speed towards its limit, the amount of power made begins to fall off, which makes an electric motor less than ideal for providing passing acceleration at high speeds. The Volt does indeed use a planetary gearbox to provide supplemental torque from the engine to the electric motor under certain conditions, but this is done to improve the cars drivability (not to defraud the American public, as certain fringe elements would have you believe). Personally, I don’t care how it works, but I’d be the first to tell you that it works very well.
The Volt isn’t radically styled, and it blends into traffic more than you expect it will. Only those who truly know what the Volt is will question you at stop lights, but that isn’t a bad thing. I like the car’s sensible-but slightly futuristic design, and you simply can’t argue with the practicality of the hatchback design. Fold the dual rear seats flat, and there’s enough room to fit a mountain bike in the hatch. Seats up, there’s plenty of room for luggage or groceries. In fact, the Volt’s design makes me question why Detroit doesn’t manufacture a conventional automobile with the same versatility.
Inside, the Volt is surprisingly comfortable. Front seats are roomy and supportive, and there’s plenty of head room up front for taller drivers. Opt for the Premium Trim package, and you get leather seats (heated in the front), but concessions are made to save power. Seat adjustments are manual, and even the Bose audio system was specifically designed to limit battery draw,
Rear seats are comfortable for those under six feet tall. To make room for the battery pack (located down the central spine of the Volt), the rear seat forgoes a bench design for individual seats. That turns out to be a good thing, because rear seat passengers under six feet tall won’t complain about the accommodations.
The Volt’s dash highlights the fact that this isn’t a conventional automobile. As for styling, it’s a pleasant blend of shapes, colors and textures, and definitely adds an upscale feel to the car. The center stack, however, is a touch-sensitive nightmare of controls placed with little thought to rhyme or reason. Every single time I used the console mounted volume control, the screen reminded me that I couldn’t record from XM Radio. Why? Because I’d brushed the “record” button while changing volume. Even after a week behind the wheel, I couldn’t change audio, nav or HVAC settings without taking my eyes off the road for far too long. Would the average driver get used to it over time? Sure, but that’s not the point. There are far better ways to design an infotainment interface, and I sincerely hope that Chevrolet revises this design on future Volt models.
Instruments for the Volt look more like a video game display than the controls of a car. Chevy allows some user customization, and their scroll-though menu is simple and intuitive. The basic display consists of a digital speedometer, a battery gauge (which changes to a fuel gauge when the batteries are depleted), a driver information display and an energy meter. If you’re trying to squeeze the best range out of the Volt, your goal is to keep the spinning green ball centered. If your goal is to have the most fun with the Volt (at the expense of range), punch up Sport mode and proceed to dunk the green basketball.
There’s a lot under the hood of the Volt, including an electric motor rated at 149 horsepower and 273 ft lb of torque, a voltage converter, a generator and a 1.4 liter, four-cylinder gasoline engine. Zero to sixty in “Sport” mode comes up in 8.7 seconds in pure EV mode, but it’s 0.2 seconds quicker if the generator is providing current to the electric motor. Fuel economy is the subject of some debate, but consider this: after a few days of normal use, I reset the odometer and measured my usage for the remainder of the test. In four days I racked up 121 miles and used just 0.7 gallons of gas, yielding an “overall” fuel economy of 152.8 miles per gallon. Most trips were under 35 miles, so the car relied on battery power alone. The single trip beyond the Volt’s battery range is where the 0.7 gallons of gas were consumed, but I failed to measure the mpg on generator power. The EPA rates the Volt at 35 mpg city and 40 mpg highway, with a combined rating of 37 mpg.
And here’s where critics of the Volt will chime in, “But a Prius gets 51 mpg city and 48 mpg highway!” True enough, but they miss the point. The Prius is a smaller car and weighs some 700 pounds less than the Volt. If you drive a long commute in city traffic, the Prius may indeed be more economical to operate, especially if you factor in the car’s lower purchase price. However, if you have a 30 mile daily commute, it’s likely that you’ll never need the Volt’s gasoline-powered generator, which negates the whole fuel-economy argument. To date, the Volt is the only electric car that you can hop into in New York and drive to Los Angeles, stopping only for gasoline along the way.
As for recharging the Volt’s batteries, the car comes with a 110 volt Level I charging cord. Open the battery door, and the center console display will show you the charging times for the supplied charger and for an optional, 240 volt Level II charger. Even with the battery on empty, the Volt never took longer than overnight to charge fully. I haven’t seen my electric bill yet, so I can’t tell you what the cost was to replenish the Volt’s charge on a nightly basis.
Driving the Volt is a somewhat surreal experience. Power is instant and seamless, especially in Sport mode. The lack of engine vibration and noise makes speed hard to judge, and it’s easy to find yourself exceeding the speed limit without trying. Even when the range-extending generator kicks on, the car is still smoother and quieter than any non-luxury sedan I could name. Push the car hard in corners, though, and you’re quickly reminded that you’re trying to hustle around nearly 3,800 pounds of automobile on tires designed more for low rolling resistance than for grip. The Volt can hold it’s own against a surprising number of sedans, but you won’t want to try and keep up with sport sedans when the road gets twisty.
Although my tester was a pre-production model, as equipped it would have carried a sticker price of $44,180. That doesn’t take into consideration any available tax credits, which really don’t immediately detract from the purchase price of the car. Critics will cry “foul” and name any number of parallel hybrids that cost less money. Some will cite the Nissan Leaf electric car, which costs less but doesn’t include a range-extending generator. As the first modern serial-electric hybrid, the Volt deserves a place in history and it’s starting price of $41,000 is comparable to the cost of a well equipped Audi A4, BMW 328i or Mercedes Benz C-Class. As prestigious as those cars may be, none of them are revolutionary, which makes the Volt more than worth the price of admission in my opinion.