Plug-in hybrids such as the Chevrolet Volt offer the efficiency of an electric car and the certainty of a gasoline engine. The Volt can run on pure electricity, but it carries its own gas-powered generator, so when it runs out of juice, it can keep going. So unlike fully electric cars, it won't leave you on the side of the road wishing for an extension cord.
The Volt's four-seat, hatchback design makes it a very good all-purpose vehicle, and its electrified powertrain makes for very low operating costs. And we found the Volt fun to drive. However, its sticker price makes it a pricey investment up front, even after federal and state tax credits.
The 2013 Volt gets some improvements and additional features. Previously, the Volt automatically allocated its electric power depending on driving mode and style. For 2013, a new Hold button allows the driver to manually choose whether to use the Volt's available electric power immediately, or whether to save it for later use. This can help maximize electric range if the driver saves the electricity for stop-and-go city driving. The 2013 Chevrolet Volt also gets an EPA-estimated increase of three more miles on electric charge, to 38 miles. After that, the engine kicks in and you're driving a regular gasoline-powered car.
Options for 2013 include a new, lower-priced navigation system that replaces the old system and uses the Chevy MyLink interface, as well as a low-emissions package that gives Volt drivers in California and New York access to carpool and HOV lanes when driving alone. A new Comfort Package includes heated front seats and a leather-wrapped steering wheel. The optional Safety Package 1 includes an auto-dimming rearview mirror, rear park assist and rearview camera. Safety Package 2 includes front park assist, forward collision alert and lane departure warning.
At the heart of the Chevrolet Volt is a 111-kilowatt electric motor that puts out the equivalent of 149 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of torque. It's powered by a T-shaped lithium-ion battery mounted under the center console and rear seat. The 435-pound battery has its own heating and cooling system to operate efficiently in extremes of temperature. The Volt will run solely on electricity until it's 70 percent depleted, then a 1.4-liter four-cylinder internal-combustion engine kicks in to power the electric motor.
The Volt gets an EPA rating of 98 miles per gallon equivalent (MPGe) and 35/40 mpg City/Highway using the gasoline engine.
Anyone who drives less than 30 miles a day should never have to put gas in the Volt, and drivers who can plug it in and charge it up while at work will double its plug-in range. We've talked to a number of drivers who do this and they say they use so little gas that they have to worry about it going bad in the tank.
Combined with the gasoline engine, the Volt has a total range of about 382 miles. With a 240-volt fast charger, the Volt can fully charge in about four hours. With a regular 120-volt household outlet, the Volt takes anywhere from 10 to 16 hours to charge, depending on temperature.
Driving the front-wheel-drive Volt is really no different than driving any gasoline-powered compact or mid-size car, and the Volt is more energetic and enjoyable than some of them. Its handling is much better than that of the all-electric Nissan Leaf.
Just a couple of years ago, the Volt was the only plug-in hybrid on the market. That has changed. Ford's C-MAX plug-in hybrid offers up to 21 miles in electric mode only, and can go up to 620 miles with a fully charged battery and a full tank of gas. While it can't go as far in pure EV mode, C-MAX offers nearly double the amount of total cargo space, and a price tag that's about $6,000 lower. The Toyota Prius plug-in is also less expensive with the most cargo space of the bunch, but it only offers a six-mile all-electric range.
Volt and other plug-in hybrids qualify for a federal rebate, plus additional credits in some states.
Chevrolet Volt ($39,145)
Chevrolet Volt's stand-out qualities start with the way it looks. We'd call it a handsome car, with a lot of presence for a small, five-door hatchback.
At an overall length of 177.1 inches, the Volt is actually four inches shorter than the Chevrolet Cruze compact sedan, though they both ride on the same 105.7-inch wheelbase. The Volt occupies about the same amount of floor space as a compact Ford Focus, and substantially less than mid-size sedans such as the Chevy Malibu or Ford Fusion. Yet, thanks its 435-pound battery pack, it weighs some 300 pounds more than the larger Malibu or Fusion.
The Volt is an exceptionally aerodynamic car, which helps it maximize range and fuel efficiency. Its low hood, raked windshield, long roof and high deck lid create the most aero-efficient Chevrolet ever, with a drag coefficient of only 0.28. That makes it one of the slipperiest sedans in the world.
In the design sense, the Volt is more forceful looking than other low-drag, high-mileage sedans and hatchbacks currently available. It's clearly cast in the current Chevrolet theme, most particularly in front, where it shares traits with the Cruze and Malibu. Yet the Volt makes excellent use of lighting as a design element, and its various aero-enhancing spoilers are integrated into a relatively sleek, holistic shape. Its 17-inch wheels are bold, and fitted with Goodyear Fuel Max P215/55R17 low-rolling-resistance tires.
The Chevrolet Volt seats four, rather than five. It's laid out with two bucket seats in front, two in the rear and a center console running the full length of the cabin.
The Volt is as different inside as it is on the outside. No other vehicle takes quite the same tack when it comes to interior treatments, yet the Volt is not so far out as to be dysfunctional or just plain weird. The center stack of switches is finished in glossy, lacquer-like white. The door pulls, window switches, vents and front cupholders are trimmed in bright silver. The Volt offers more interior color, lighting and trim options than the typical Chevrolet sedan, and the cabin looks very modern. The build quality is excellent and the materials and graining are well done.
Expansive glass brings light into the car. The Volt feels quite roomy in front, and we'd venture that only humans beyond perhaps the 80th percentile in stature will feel squeezed in any fashion. The front buckets are handsome and very usable, comprising some of GM's best seats ever. They're very snug and comfortable, but supportive and never numbing. They fit people of average build nicely, though we wonder if those 80th percentile bodies might find them a little small.
The Volt's gauges are two seven-inch, high-resolution full-color LCDs. One is a user configurable cluster in front of the driver, while they other shows audio, climate and navigation functions at the top of the center stack. The screens are so engaging that, especially when you are first getting used to the car and evaluating the various display options, they can divert attention from the task of driving. But eventually the novelty wears off.
Between these two screens, the driver can find every kind of technical information about the Volt's operation. A large speedometer dominates the driver's screen, with other conventional gauges like fuel level arrayed around the corners, a battery depletion gauge on the left, and a floating virtual Earth on the right-hand side. The idea is to keep the Earth centered at all times for the best battery life and least energy usage.
The center stack has several touch buttons that adjust the Volt's heating, ventilation, air conditioning, entertainment and navigation functions. These are more like touch areas, without a mechanical button to operate. The driver must use a carefully pointed fingertip to avoid hitting the wrong button or area, but with a bit of time and familiarity, the various operations get easier and the switch collection becomes fun to use.
The rear bucket seats are separated by a console on the floor, with cupholders and a storage tray, and by open space to the cargo area between the two seatbacks. The seats themselves are nicely contoured and nearly as good as those in front. Access is easy through large rear door openings, and there is as much space for rear passengers as there is in the roomiest compact sedans.
Behind the rear seats, though, the Volt has just 10.6 cubic feet of cargo space. That's substantially less volume than in the Ford C-MAX Energi plug-in or the Prius Plug-in, and more like what you'd expect in a sports car or coupe. Although folding rear seats do open up more space. Access to the cargo area is easy through the large, high-swinging tailgate, though the lift-over height to put things inside seems a bit higher than the average sedan.
Driving the Volt is no different than driving a conventional compact or mid-size sedan. We found it more pleasant to drive than many. Thanks to instant torque from the electric motor, its pedal-to-the-floor acceleration is surprisingly satisfying, from a stop or from a rolling start, particularly in short bursts. It will hit 60 mph from a stop in a tick under nine seconds, and it wasn't that long ago that this level of acceleration was a benchmark for quick.
Put another way, the Volt is hardly a bore. Its steering is quite good: relatively quick, accurate and nicely weighted. The electro-hydraulic regenerative brake system captures energy to help recharge the battery every time you step on the brakes. We found the brakes work extremely well crawling through traffic or hauling the Volt down from highway speeds.
The Volt is also quite comfortable, but certainly not floaty and offers good transient response. The placement of its battery pack creates a lower center of gravity than that in most sedans, and the Volt is equipped with premium chassis features such as hydraulic suspension bushings. The suspension minimizes harshness and absorbs big bumps and potholes with ease, yet the ride stays taut and smooth The Volt keeps a nice, even keel, even in repeated, sharp, side-to-side maneuvers. Its hard eco tires, designed to minimize rolling resistance, are a bit noisier than some, but they provide more than enough grip for most drivers.
The Volt's safety package is more elaborate and complex than that in the typical compact sedan. Part of the complexity comes from special cooling circuits for the batteries. Most of the safety systems, such as airbags and the rest are tied into the power electronics so that they shut down after a severe impact, rollover or flood.
Like some of the more familiar hybrids, the Volt is always trying to help its driver achieve better battery performance, better overall efficiency and better fuel mileage through various graphics in the instrument panel. There's a tutorial on how to use these tools, and it's very easy to stay on top of all the information by scrolling through the menus as you drive, trying to keep the battery-stack icon as tall as possible.
Through the first two days of a recent test, we drove the Volt 176 miles, recharging for short periods during some stops (but not fully), and not being particularly conservative with our driving style, except to avoid blasting heat, seat heaters or stereo, or charging portable devices (all notable battery drains). Over those 176 miles, we used just 1.7 gallons of gasoline. According to our calculations, that gave us a 103.5 mpg equivalent (MPGe), even though the EPA rates the 2013 Chevrolet Volt at 98 MPGe.
An another occasion, we drove a Volt 50 miles on a single full charge, using Low range on the transmission in afternoon rush-hour traffic, lifting off the accelerator pedal to slow the car between stoplights and regenerating electricity in the process, and using the brake pedal sparingly (the conventional brakes also recapture some energy and help recharge the batteries, but not as much as when the Volt is coasting down).
Although we were able to beat estimates for both MPGe and all-electric range during those test drives, results vary according to driving style, temperature, and other factors. One of our stints in the Volt came late fall in the Midwest, and we noticed the Volt's EV range prediction was only 35 miles on a full charge on mornings when the temperature was above 40 degrees. When the temperature was below freezing, it showed as little as 30 miles of predicted range.
It took us 8-10 hours to fully charge the Volt's battery on a standard 120-volt household outlet. We'd recommend springing for the optional 240-volt charger, which reduces charging time to about four hours. Pricing for the 240v unit and installation may vary, depending on utility provider and location.
If you drive less than 30 miles a day, you may never have to fill the Volt up with gas. One thing drivers should be aware of is that gasoline goes bad and can degrade within a couple of months. Owners of classic cars add liquid fuel stabilizers to address this problem, but we haven't checked to see whether they are compatible with the Volt. But not to worry; the Volt has a system that senses when condensation has gotten into the fuel and tells the driver to go out for a drive to burn some gas.
The Chevrolet Volt is a stylish, fun-to-drive plug-in hybrid, but cargo space falls short and pricing is high compared to rivals.