The 2016 Chevrolet Volt, a five-door fastback hatchback, is all new. It’s not like most other cars that are called all-new. With the electric Volt it really is all new, and it’s important. The first generation of Volt was groundbreaking, and as such had shortcomings. This Volt rewrites the book, in order to cover what was missed in the original.
For starters, it has way more all-electric range, EPA-rated at 53 miles (up from 38); better fuel mileage, EPA-rated 42 Combined miles per gallon (up from 37); and a slightly lower price. In electric mode, the EPA rates the Volt at 106 MPGe (miles per gallon equivalent). An 8.9-gallon fuel tank with the new battery pack give a total gas/electric range of 430 miles, way up from the old Volt’s 340 miles.
The new Volt is quieter, smoother, and faster: zero to sixty in about 8 seconds, down from 9. Total output to the wheels is the same 111 kilowatts (149 hp), but torque has increased to a remarkable 294 pound-feet from 273.
It’s 200 pounds lighter, while seating another person, now five, never mind that it should be a small person. More visibly, the new styling is quite rakish and sporty; instead of sticking out and announcing ELECTRIC CAR, like before, the Volt now turns heads that ask, electric car? (It’s actually a hybrid extended-range car, or something like that.)
The cockpit is also less self-conscious, in that it doesn’t try so hard to be different. The high-tech chase is toned down, allowing the controls to be more conventional and intuitive. The first Volt’s irritating touch switches have been replaced by knobs for audio and climate control.
The chassis/platform is also new, to be used by upcoming GM compact cars, for example the next Chevrolet Cruze. It’s modified to make space for the Volt’s T-shaped battery pack. This is the area where improvement is zooming, now with 192 lithium-ion cells, when before there were 288. Battery capacity is 18.4 kilowatt-hours, about 8 percent more.
According to Chevrolet, 90 percent of Volt buyers’ round trips will be less than 53 miles, so we’re talking almost never buying gas. But the internal combustion engine is there for the real world, insurance against running out battery power, the elimination of range anxiety. The engine is a 1.5-liter four-cylinder making 101 horsepower, developed to fire on the efficient Atkinson Cycle.
Neither the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration nor the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety have yet rated the 2016 Volt for crashworthiness; the 2015 Volt received five stars (the highest rating), and GM isn’t going to let the new one go backward. The 2016 Volt comes with 10 airbags.
The 2016 Chevy Volt doesn’t display hybrid/electric-car weirdness like the Toyota Prius and Nissan Leaf do, or more notably like the old Volt.
Instead, it’s sleek, angular and aggressive, lower and tauter than before, with a wedge nose with lights that sweep toward the steep windshield. The backlight is steep, and the high rear deck is not flat and plain. There’s a sharp character line on the side that obliterates the old Volt’s slab side.
We see hints of Honda Civic in the profile and pillars, echoes of Acura in the pointed nose, and sounds of Subaru in the curve of the taillamps. But a textured silver blanking plate replacing the grille, along with a black Volt spear on the front fender, connect the car to its purpose.
We like the new Volt’s twin-cockpit design, in black with silver accents. Available two-tone interiors add a touch of elegance. There are still some over-styling flourishes, but nothing like the old car’s gimmicky controls, chaotic display, and glossy plastic console.
The switches, controls, and instruments are legible and easy to grasp and use. Knobs for audio and climate replace the maddening capacitive touch buttons. The central display screen is crisp.
The rear seats are low, with the window seats in the form of buckets. The center seat is basically just a cushion over the battery pack, while the battery tunnel spreads that unlucky fifth passenger’s feet.
Rearward visibility is improved but still not great. Good riddance to that extra glass panel in the hatchback. The old Volt’s blind spot at the base of the windshield pillars has been downsized but remains. Apparently, the steep windshield requires a large pillar to make the top crush-resistant.
Over-the-shoulder visibility is dismal, but at least the rearview camera is high quality, with the best resolution on the 8-inch center display screen than we’ve ever seen in a compact car.
The 2016 Volt is heavy for a compact, at 3540 pounds, hardly lithe, but its steering is fairly lively, and the roadholding decent. It’s actually enjoyable to drive on twisty roads: quiet, smooth, and not fussy, while the delivery of its electric power is consistent and soothing.
We drove the Volt for two days around San Francisco, and found the all-electric range of 53 miles to be realistic. But even when we ran out of battery power and the car switched to its gas engine, it was quiet. We drove about 100 miles on the engine, and barely knew it. The friction brakes and regenerative brakes blend imperceptibly.
When the battery pack is depleted, the engine uses one of two motor-generators to flow electricity to the battery pack at up to 45 kW. The engine assists the electric motors in powering the front wheels when that is most efficient. Or the motors can power the front wheels together, or one motor can drive the car while the other recharges the battery, depending on what uses the least energy. What the motors and engine are doing is usually invisible.
Fully recharging the batteries takes 4.5 hours, says GM, using a 240-volt Level 2 charging station. But only a 120-volt cable comes with the car, and a full recharge takes nine to 12 hours, depending on temperature, the quality of the circuit, and other factors. DC quick-charging isn’t possible with the Volt. The charging system is rated at 3.6 kilowatts; more would charge faster, but Chevrolet says that overnight charging is most common among Volt owners. Owners who work long hours may not always get a full charge, but they will have the gas engine as a fallback and will still use only a small amount of fuel.
If you didn’t buy a Volt when it came out in 2011 because you knew it would soon be improved, you were right. Maybe now is the time to buy. Unlike a pure electric car, the Volt will never run out of battery juice and leave you on the side of the road. Its gas engine is always standing by, ready to get you where you’re going.
Driving impressions by John Voelcker. Sam Moses contributed to this report.