Chevy Volt review by PluginCars.com

Styling

The Chevy Volt’s outward appearance is not iconic—unlike the decisively funky designs of other electric-drive cars, such as the Nissan LEAF, BMW i3, or even the Toyota Prius hybrid.

What's New in 2015?

There's a smidgen more battery capacity, but no substantial changes in 2015.

Its normal-ness—some may say blandness—disguises its great aerodynamics. The rounded hood-to-roof-to-hatchback designs that contribute to making geeky-looking green cars slip so easily through air, and makes them so immediately identifiable, have been dodged.

In other words, the Chevy Volt bypasses the feel of an appliance or iPod in favor of the more familiar husky designs emerging in many domestic sedans. The Volt shares its platform with the Chevrolet Cruze, and on the road, the two vehicles don’t look so different from one another.

Chevy Volt review by PluginCars.com

Yet, the Volt’s few design idiosyncrasies—blackened door panel insets, stylized side mirrors, flat-top rear spoiler, and unique taillights—give it an appeal that enthusiasts think is snazzy, while plug-in novices see it as mildly attractive. People are more likely to say, “Oh, that’s a Volt, it looks pretty good” when it passes by, rather than turn their heads with either delight or disgust.

It’s the interior design where G.M. designers have run into some problems. They apparently tried to spiff up an unremarkable general design with plastic door inserts and shiny materials that look a little cheap.

The biggest criticisms are aimed at the Volt’s glossy giant center console, especially when it comes in white instead of black. It has an overwhelming number of tiny capacitive buttons, with still more choices from the center console touchscreen. It’s information overload. The display’s learning curve gets steep when behind the steering wheel. For example, more than one driver will have trouble finding the PRNDL indicator, at first. Moreover, the high-tech aesthetics of the interface, and at least one of the interior panel designs, comes off as futuristic and overdone. The Star Wars sound effects are goofy, and the capacitive buttons are awkward.

The other significant design criticism is poor driver visibility through the rear window.

Performance

The more important departure from hybrids like the Prius, and to some extent the all-electric LEAF, is the athleticism of the drive.

The Volt, especially when toggled out of “Normal” mode and into “Sport,” provides a driving excitement previously sacrificed by folks wanting to maximize efficiency. The extra oomph comes from the sizable 111-kilowatt (149 horsepower) electric motor, supplying a wallop of instantaneous power to the wheels. (By the way, switching to “Sport” mode doesn’t change a thing, except the pedal “mapping”—providing more oomph with less pedal movement.)

Chevy Volt review by PluginCars.com

You can read the specs—such as 273 pound-feet of torque, zero-to-60 in about 9 seconds, or a top speed of 100 mph—but you have to personally experience its power from behind the wheel to appreciate it. More than anything else, the ultra-quietness combined with immediate torque is what creates the wow factor. How can this thing go so fast without any engine rev? That cognitive dissonance creates the biggest impression and serves as the trait used by Volt evangelists to spread the word.

The fast and whooshy feeling is fully supported by a solid feeling in steering and handling. If G.M. engineers had stiffened up the ride any more, it would be less accessible to everyday drivers, and even a slightly looser feel would feel mushy and disconnected.

The Volt’s impressive acceleration highlights another critical distinction between the Volt and any other hybrid using a gas engine. Certainly during its first 38 miles—but even beyond that—there is no clunky switching back forth between gas and electric systems. Step into the accelerator as hard as you like, and you’ll hear not a peep from the engine.

The post-38-mile transition from charge-depleting to charge-sustaining mode is much more seamless than the Prius’s relative clunky transitions. The engineers were less successful in producing a seamless braking experience. The first degrees of brake pedal action that brings on regenerative braking will likely feel too loose on the foot for many drivers—even if the motor turned into generator is in fact producing the intended deceleration. Pushing the brake further, depending on the road surface, gives a slight uneasy hesitation—as if the computer is “calculating”—before the friction brakes bring the car more swiftly to a slightly twittery stop. This sensation will probably vanish for most drivers after learning how the Volt responds.

Efficiency & Range

The Chevy Volt operates entirely as an electric car for its first 38 or so miles after receiving a full charge. It burns no gasoline during those miles, drawing energy from a 400-pound lithium ion battery pack containing 16 kilowatt-hours of energy. Only about half of that energy is ever put to use—as a means to ensure that the batteries reach the 100,000 miles of warrantied service. (It's curious that G.M. is being so conservative with battery utilization compared to competitors that use 80 percent of more of capacity.) Current from that pack powers a 150-horsepower electric motor that drives the Volt’s front wheels.

But 38 miles of range isn’t practical, so the Volt also carries a 1.4-liter gas-powered engine. That engine doesn’t drive the wheels—it only supplies power to a generator that sustains the battery charge enough to give the car another 300 miles of range. And that only happens once the battery is exhausted. (Though officially rated at 38 miles of electric-only range, countless reports from Volt owners show that Chevy's plug-in hybrid can go well beyond 38 miles of all-electric driving if driven with care.)

The Volt’s technical arrangement is called a “series” plug-in hybrid. It’s fundamentally different from a “parallel” hybrid, like the Toyota Prius, in which the car’s computer frequently switches between the engine and a much smaller battery pack.

Technical terminology and marketing lingo aside, the Volt is generally characterized as a plug-in hybrid. As such, it sets the gold standard for plug-in hybrids (or PHEVs) because no other plug-in hybrid comes close to offering nearly 40 miles of efficient all-electric driving before the gas engine comes on. (Note: the BMW i3, with the range-extender option, is more purely an electric car with about 80 miles of range until its small gas engine kicks in.)

Official EPA numbers for the 2014 Volt peg the “miles per gallon equivalent” while driving on electricity at 98 MPGe. And when the gas engine comes on board—and the car turns into a regular hybrid—the rating is 35 mpg in the city and 40 mpg on the highway (for a combined average of 37 mpg). The main metric in terms of efficiency, for many drivers, is the length of time between visits to a gas station—which is commonly counted in months. Chevrolet reports that Volt drivers average 900 miles between fill-ups.

Charging

The idea that EV owners worry about limited driving range—frequently referred to as “range anxiety”—is flipped on its head when it comes to the Chevy Volt. With a total range of 380 miles, when both electricity and gasoline are considered—and the ability to visit the pumps to fill up the 9.3-gallon tank, Volt drivers never really have to worry about running out of range. Instead, the concern—you might even call it a game—is at all costs avoiding using a single drop of gasoline. This has been given the tongue-in-cheek term: “gas anxiety.”

The key to going go weeks or months between visits to the gas station is to charge up as frequently as possible—at home, work, public, everywhere—plugging in even more often than owners of pure battery EV cars charge. (Again, it’s not that plugging in is absolutely required, but it is a means for staying on electricity.)

Every Volt comes standard with a portable charge cord that can easily plug into a standard 120-volt outlet. In this manner, the 16-kWh battery pack can fully charge in about 10 to 16 hours, according to General Motors. This method, sometimes called “trickle” charging, only adds about three to four miles in an hour. In many cases, a couple of hours of charging via 120v, is the difference between having to use any gasoline, or remaining fully electric all the way to your destination.

Fortunately, the Volt uses the standard J1772 connection found in all U.S.-based home and public EV chargers that supply 240-volts of juice. This bumps up the number of electric miles you can replenish to 10 to 12 miles in an hour. Leave the Volt plugged into a 240-volt source for between three and four hours—say, from the time you get to work until lunch hour—and you have a full fresh supply of about 38 miles of EV driving.

Of course, if the battery is not fully charged, and you run out of electrons before you reach your destination, there’s nothing really to worry about. The gas-powered electric generator will seamlessly kick in to provide enough fuel for hundreds of miles, at roughly the efficiency of many mid-size hybrids on the road.

Passenger & Cargo Room

The Volt seats four—not five—passengers. The central tunnel that holds the Volt’s T-shaped battery pack separates the second row into two bucket seats. A center console divides the seats. Reviewers say the front seats are comfortable if not entirely spacious. Adjustments are manual rather than power.

There is 10.6 cubic feet of cargo hatch space behind the rear seats, a storage capacity that beats cargo space found in mid-size plug-in hybrids from Ford and Honda. But the Toyota Prius Plug-in—just like the conventional Prius—offers much more space from its cargo hatch.

The snug interior design, and thick roof pillars, create a significant visibility problem for some drivers. Shoppers are strongly encouraged to study blind spots during a test drive, to make sure visibility is not compromised beyond the limits of your size and comfort level.

Safety

The 2014 model earned impressive safety ratings from reviewers. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave the Volt a “Good” rating—its highest score—across four test parameters. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration pinned five stars—its highest rating—to the Volt for rollover and side crashes, and four stars for a frontal crash. The yielded an overall rating from NHTSA of five stars.

The list of standard safety features on the Volt includes antilock brakes, stability control, front-seat side-impact airbags, front knee airbags and full-length sidecurtain airbags. The OnStar telematics system—which includes automatic crash notification, on-demand roadside assistance, remote door unlocking, stolen vehicle assistance and turn-by-turn navigation—is also standard.

Optional features include front/rear park assist and rearview camera (which help alleviate shortcomings in visibility), as well as forward collision and lane departure warning systems.

Past concerns about the safety of the Volt’s battery system during crash events have been put to rest.

Chevy Volt review by PluginCars.com

Price

In August 2013, General Motors announced a drop in the price of the base model Chevrolet Volt by $5,000, starting with the 2014 model year.

Now in its third year of production, the popular range-extended electric car now starts at just $34,995, including a mandatory $810 destination fee, placing it within reach of more Americans than ever before.

That’s before taking into account any federal or state incentives. For example, the combined $7,500 federal tax credit and $1,500 rebate for plug-in owners in California drops the effective price of a new 2014 Volt to $25,994. Those in Colorado will be able to drive off the dealer's lot with $6,000 in state and $7,500 in federal tax credits, reducing the effective price to a staggering $21,495 and making it effectively cheaper than a base-model 2013 Chevrolet Malibu in that state.

Chevrolet.com says the Volt is available for lease starting at $269 a month, based on a 36-month lease and $2,679 due at signing. Tax, title, license and dealer fees are extra. Mileage will cost you $.25/mile over 36,000 miles.

Unlike the 2013 model year, which received a slightly larger battery pack, an increase in EPA-approved all-electric range from 35 miles to 38 miles, some trim upgrades and some new color options, changes for the 2014 model are minimal.

These include adding a leather-wrapped steering wheel as standard, dropping the two-tone white-accented interior, adding the option of heated seats across all trim ranges, and two new color options: Ashen Grey Metallic and Brownstone Metallic.

There is a change to the charge port door on the 2014 models. Unlike previous years—which were fitted with a solenoid-operated charge port door release mechanism that proved somewhat unreliable in operation—the 2014 gets a simpler mechanical push latch similar to the one found on the 2014 Toyota Prius Plug-in.

In terms of efficiency, the 2014 model year boasts the same 38-mile EPA approved all-electric range at an efficiency of 98 MPGe as the 2013 model, and the same 37 mpg combined rating while in range-extended mode.

With the price drop, the 2014 Chevrolet Volt now has a powerful price advantage over cars like the Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid and the Ford Focus Energi plug-in hybrid, making it a serious contender for anyone wanting the efficiency of an electric vehicle but the ability to go longer distances when needed.

Comparisons of Similar Cars

What sets the Volt apart is that it is a true EV, with a range-extender added, whereas all the plug-in hybrids are basically hybrids with a larger battery to increase their low-speed all electric range.

So, competing plug-in hybrid models—such as the Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid, Honda Accord Plug-in Hybrid, and Energi versions of the Ford C-Max and Fusion—get between 10 to 20 miles of all-EV range before using gasoline, the Volt gets nearly 40 miles.

Prior to the drop in price of the 2014 Chevrolet Volt, you could have argued whether or not the Volt’s steeper price tag was worth the savings at the pump versus other plug-in hybrids. But now that the 2014 model starts at $35,000—and many dealerships are offering compelling lease deals—the Chevy Volt is the clear winner in terms of striking a balance between cost, and EV driving with zero worries about running out of fuel.

The Volt also gets bonus points for the sportiness of its drive, compared to more sedate plug-in hybrids—that have gas engines that fire up too easily—and smaller pure electric cars, that feel less substantial on the road compared to the Volt.

Of course, buyers will need to seriously think about the Volt as strictly a four-passenger vehicle.

Purchase Process

The Chevrolet Volt has been available at Chevy dealerships throughout the United States since mid-2011. The purchase process for the Volt is no different than other vehicles available at your friendly neighborhood Chevy dealership.

Before closing the deal, you’ll want to consider tax incentives, such as the $7,500 tax credit available to Volt buyers, as well as the possibility of purchasing a home charging station.

2015 Chevy Volt specifications

Availability: Now
Base MSRP: $35000
Est. tax credit: $7500
Technology: Plug-in Hybrid
Body type: Sedan
Seats: 4
Range: 38 miles + gas
EPA Range: 38 miles electric + gasoline
Battery size: 16 kWh
Charging rate: 3.3 kW


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