The story on the Chevrolet Volt is bigger than the machine itself. The Chevrolet Volt is an impressive engineering achievement and we are impressed with the car. We think the story about the fires has been overblown and incompletely told. Not so overblown are the government subsidies, which irk many taxpayers. But as machines go, the Volt is quite good.
A four-seat hatchback, the Volt is a very good all-purpose automobile, with very low operating costs. It's electric-powered, but it carries its own gas-powered generator so when it runs out of juice it can continue for hundreds of miles. It won't leave you on the side of the road, wishing for an extension cord.
Introduced as a 2011 model, the Volt is largely unchanged for 2012. Now in its second year of production, the 2012 Volt is available in all 50 states and Canada. The 2012 Volt's standard features and options have been realigned slightly, and its base retail price actually decreases more than $1,000.
For 2012, Chevrolet has added structural enhancements to the Volt to reduce the risk of battery damage or coolant leakage in an impact. The changes followed news reports that the batteries in a couple of Volts had caught fire after government crash tests. Seldom mentioned is that the fires occurred two days or more after the Volts were crashed, and after the cars had been left sitting without the post-crash storage steps recommended by Chevrolet.
The Volt is not a traditional hybrid with a gasoline engine that frequently drives the wheels and directly propels the car. Instead, Volt's power system is similar to that used for decades in diesel locomotives. Think of the Volt's small gas engine as an electricity producer or a range extender, as GM calls it. When it runs, the gas engine turns a generator that recharges the battery pack. But the electric drive motor is always moving the car regardless of whether the engine is running.
So the Volt does not have the limited range of an all-electric car. 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. Yet if a Volt owner forgets to plug it in, there's no fear that she won't get where she needs to go. The gasoline engine starts automatically when you run out of juice and provides the necessary electricity to propel you home. This happens seamlessly. Once the gasoline engine starts, you have a range of about 345 miles before you must stop and either fill the gas tank or plug it in. Chevrolet Volt owners will never experience the range anxiety owners of the Nissan Leaf and other all-electric cars must sometimes face.
We like the Volt's look, interior treatment and plentiful standard features. We think the Volt is a more rational choice for most consumers than the strict plug-in electric cars that are beginning to appear in the marketplace. Most of all, we like Volt's ability to do the work of a conventional compact car.
Driving the 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 Nissan Leaf and we found it fun to drive. The Volt is front-wheel drive.
Volt uses a T-shaped lithium-ion battery mounted under the center console and rear seat to supply power to its 149-horsepower electric drive motor. The 435-pound battery has its own heating and cooling system to operate efficiently in extremes of temperature. It can be fully charged in four hours with the available 240-volt charging station, or in 12 hours on normal house current. Chevrolet estimates an overnight charge costs $1.00 to $1.50, depending on utility rates.
When the battery charge runs low, the 1.4-liter gasoline engine starts and turns a 55-kilowatt generator, which supplies electricity to charge the battery so the journey can continue. All of this happens seamlessly as you drive along. The Volt will go as long as its 9.3-gallon fuel tank has gasoline, or a distance Chevrolet calculates as 380 miles between fuel stops. That's 35 miles on an initial plug-in charge, and 345 with the gasoline engine generating the electricity.
The battery is never depleted, and operates continuously between 50 and 65 percent of its capacity, but the system is geared toward preserving the battery's life and condition under extremes of heat, cold and continuous duty. Because there is the possibility of long periods of gasoline storage, the Volt is built with a sealed, pressurized fuel system. There's a warning system that tells the driver to go out for a drive to burn off any condensation that has reached the fuel.
The Volt comes with a full complement of air bags, all of the electronic driving aids, and a complex system of redundant safety features to protect occupants and the battery pack in severe impact, rollover or floods. It's been rated a Top Safety Pick by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, and rates five of five stars in four of the five government crash tests.
At $40,000, the Volt costs substantially more than conventional cars of similar size and capability. It's loaded with new, expensive technology, and Chevrolet has chosen not to subsidize its price, as other manufacturers have done when they launched more familiar hybrids. Instead, the federal government has subsidized it. In addition to that, the federal government is offering rebates of up to $7,500 to taxpayers who purchase a Volt. In addition, several states offer refunds or rebates. Colorado offers up to $6,000, Illinois up to $4,000, Pennsylvania $3,500, Maryland $2,000. There are forms to fill out, of course.
The Chevy 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. 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. As a result, it takes less energy to keep the Volt rolling as it slices through the air at highway speeds. GM engineers say the careful aerodynamic tuning increased the Volt's range by eight miles for each plug-in charge.
In the design sense, the Volt is more forceful and less neutered looking than some 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.
A black-trimmed wheel option, new for 2012, makes the Volt look even bolder. There are also two new exterior colors for 2012: Summit White and Blue Topaz Metallic.
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, well, engaging, but gauges may not be the right word. In fact, they are more like video screens: 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.
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 18 or 20 touch buttons that adjust the Volt's heating, ventilation, air conditioning, entertainment and navigation functions. Actually, these are more like touch areas, without a mechanical button to operate. It's a little bewildering at first, mostly in terms of locating the touch points where the switch actually works. 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.
A minor gripe applies to the gear selector. It stylishly parks itself in an indent or cut-out in the bottom of the center stack, but here the style gives up a bit of practicality. There isn't a lot of space in the cut-out to get a hand around the shifter, and we wonder whether drivers with large hands will find it a tight squeeze.
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 the trunk in the typical compact sedan (Chevy Cruze offers 15.4 cubic feet), and more like what you'd expect in a sports car or coupe. The saving grace in this context is the individually folding rear seat backs, which open up a lot more space for boxes, suitcases and other stuff. Alternatively, we might think of the four-seat Volt as an everyday two-seater with more cargo space than the average mid-size.
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. Chevy dealers offer various devices, including nets and organizers, to tailor the Volt's cargo space to the owner's needs.
In broad terms, anyone who drives less than 20 or 30 miles per day will almost never have to put gasoline in the Chevrolet Volt. An owner who can plug in and charge at work is good for a 20-30 mile commute in each direction, no gasoline consumed. Yet if that owner plans to take an extended road trip, or just forgot to plug the Volt in the night before, there's nothing to worry about, as there would be in a Nissan Leaf or Ford's forthcoming Focus Electric. If the Volt's battery is too depleted to move the car, its gasoline engine starts and powers a generator, which in turn creates electricity to power the electric drive motor.
There are slight qualifiers, to be sure, but the scenario above describes the strength, and perhaps the beauty, of the Volt. That and the fact that, while it always runs on electricity, driving the Volt is no different than driving a conventional compact or mid-size sedan. We found it more pleasant to drive than many.
Besides the fact that you can plug the Volt in, there is nothing weird about it. There are good-selling, conventional gasoline-powered cars that aren't as energetic or enjoyable as the Volt. 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. In our opinion, concerns over the safety of the Volt's batteries are unwarranted, despite recent reports of a couple of battery fires days or weeks after government crash tests. Battery safety would not figure into our buying decision.
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). And over those 176 miles, we used 1.7 gallons of gasoline generating electricity when the battery depleted. Translation: 103.5 mpg. The government gas-only mpg ratings of 35 city, 40 highway, are based on the assumption that the Volt is never plugged into an outlet to charge the batteries.
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). In this mode, the Volt is virtually noiseless. Conversation is easy, and the sound system doesn't have to be cranked up to overcome operating noise. It made for a very pleasant commute from the airport to the hotel.
Eventually, though, the battery will deplete, after 48 miles in the instance above, and then the engine starts itself, noiselessly, and stays quietly in the background even at high throttle settings (the Volt has an electronic noisemaker that makes it more obvious to pedestrians when the engine isn't running).
We found Chevy's estimate of eight to 10 hours for a full battery charge, from depletion, to be accurate. But that's with the portable charge cord that comes with the car, on standard 120-volt household current. We'd guess that many owners will ante-up for the optional 240-volt charger (the price of the unit and installation vary, depending on utility provider and location). Chevy says the 240-volt charger reduces charge time to four hours. You're going to want one of those.
One of our stints in the Volt came late fall in the Midwest, with changeable but generally colder temps, and we noticed that there is a temperature parameter in how the car calculates range on a full charge. The most mileage the range predictor showed was 35 miles, on mornings when the temperature was above 40 degrees. On other occasions, with the temperature below freezing, it showed as little as 30 miles of predicted range.
The upshot? Volt's battery range is somewhat dependent on ambient conditions, and the colder the temperature the shorter the range. We can't predict what kind of range might be available starting on a bone-chilling, sub-zero morning in Minneapolis. Yet here again, we see the beauty of the Volt. Because it can generate its own electricity, and isn't dependent on the plug-in charge, its ultimate battery range is almost never an issue.
There are a couple of odd things we noted at the wheel of the Volt, and the first one might be a gripe: The gear selector is a bit too sticky. Coasting in Low range is best for capturing energy and generating electricity, so when you lift your foot off the accelerator and slow for a light ahead, you might want to drop the shifter into Low. We found the shifter a bit too reluctant to easily slide down.
The other oddity applies to driving style, and results from the way the Volt generates electricity as it slows down. As noted, the meters at the driver's disposal show that it captures a lot more energy and charges the batteries more when it's coasting, rather than when the driver is hard on the brake pedal. When a light several blocks ahead turns red, you'll probably find yourself coasting as long as possible to recharge, and then getting on the conventional brakes hard in the last 50 or so feet before the stop point.
One problem with the Volt you may have, if you can call it a problem, is that you may not burn much gas in everyday driving. Gasoline goes bad and can degrade within a couple of months. Liquid fuel stabilizers are used by owners of classic cars to handle this, but we haven't checked to see whether they are compatible with the Volt. In any case, 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 electric Chevrolet Volt should be a pleasant surprise to most drivers for its smooth, quiet operation, its good acceleration, its excellent ride-handling balance and its ongoing economy of operation. The Volt is expensive compared to conventionally powered compacts, especially before government tax credits, but it's an engineering marvel that's nice looking and functional. We think it's a more rational alternative to the plug-in-only electric cars that are sprouting in the market place. With the Volt, you'll never be left on the side of the road without a charge.
Jim McCraw reported from Rochester, Michigan, with J.P. Vettraino in Detroit, NewCarTestDrive.com editor Mitch McCullough in Los Angeles.