The Chevy Volt operates entirely as an electric car for its first 35 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 warranted service. Current from that pack powers a 150-horsepower electric motor that drives the Volt’s front wheels.
But 35 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 35 miles of electric-only range, countless reports from Volt owners show that Chevy's plug-in hybrid can go well beyond 35 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.
Just Like a Regular Car, Only Not
Unlike the Prius, or the Nissan LEAF for that matter, the Chevy Volt’s outward appearance is not iconic. Its normalness—some may say blandness—belies its great aerodynamics. The rounded hood-to-roof-to-hatchback design that contributes to making the Prius and Honda Insight slip so easily through air, and makes it so identifiable, have been dodged. The endearing homeliness of the LEAF that broadcasts that an electric car is coming has also been replaced.
The Chevy Volt bypasses the feel of an appliance or iPod in favor of the familiar design emerging from many other domestic sedans. It looks snazzy to enthusiasts, and competent to others. Any of the Volt’s design quirks—blackened door panel insets, stylized side mirrors, flat-top rear spoiler, and slightly hieroglyphic-like taillight lines—are flourishes downplayed against the larger restrained motif. People are more likely to say, “Oh, that’s a Volt, it looks pretty good” when it passes by, rather than turn their head with delight or disgust.
The more important departure from the Prius, and to some extent the 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. This mostly comes from an electric motor—roughly twice the size of the Prius’s—supplying a wallop of instantaneous power to the wheels. (By the way, switching to “Sport” mode doesn’t change a thing, except the pedal feel—providing more oomph with less pedal movement.)
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 directly experience its power from behind the wheel to appreciate it. More than anything else, the ultra-quietness combined with immediate torque is the novelty that 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-silent-whooshy feeling is fully supported by a solid but not too tight 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.
A Step Up on Other Hybrids
The Volt’s impressive acceleration highlights another critical distinction between the Volt and any other hybrid using a gas engine. Certainly during its first 35 miles—but even beyond that—there is no clunky switching back forth between gas and electric. Step into the accelerator as hard as you like, and you’ll hear not a peep from the engine. Even with the excellent mostly electric drive of the Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid during its first dozen or so miles, if you push the pedal past a point, the Prius-with-Plug's engine will rumble and flutter into action.
The post-35-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.
The same level of sophistication that makes acceleration and handling so much fun is extended to the interior, which matches the quality of many luxury vehicles. The seats are firm and comfortable. The materials, with a few exceptions, have a quality feel. The doors go thunk, instead of ping. Don’t be misled by the Chevy-brand badging. The Volt is an upscale vehicle worthy of its higher price tag.
Still, there is a degree of futuristic garishness. The giant center console, especially when it comes in white instead of black, has an overwhelming number of tiny buttons, with still more choices from the center console touchscreen. That’s not all. The learning curve gets steeper with the display directly behind the steering wheel. More than one driver will have trouble finding the PRNDL indicator, at first. One other quirk is the counter-intuitive push-pull control for the electronically controlled parking brake. Pull to engage and push to release, not the other way around.
The high-tech aesthetics of the interface, and at least one of the interior panel designs, comes off as overdone. The best example of this is the way-too-loud artificial retro-tech sound as soon as you hit the power-on button. This can and should be killed, if you have the patience to find which of the numerous touch-button screens does the trick. The overall feeling is that a million things are going on.
Two other issues to consider, and they might be deal-killers for some shoppers: The car only has four seats. And at 6’4”, my head hits the ceiling when seated in the back.
The lack of familiarity with plug-in technology—and perhaps some poor marketing—produced a bumpy road for the Volt in 2011, its first year on the market. By the end of 2011, the Chevy Volt looked like it was in trouble. Sales were lackluster. Reports about Volt batteries catching fire—in extremely rare lab testing—were misunderstood and blown out of proportion. Federal authorities dismissed the case as a non-issue, but it affected public perception—as did a non-stop barrage of attacks from Conservative political pundits claiming that low Volt sales meant the car’s technology and government support of General Motors was an outright failure. By the end of the year, Yahoo!Finance listed the Chevy Volt as one of the top 10 worst product flops in 2011.
But General Motors, and Bob Lutz, the company’s former chairman (and a long-time advocate for the Volt), fought back. In an exclusive column for Forbes magazine in early February, Lutz took direct aim at the politically motivated false allegations. Lutz took umbrage at characterizations of the Volt as a government-funded project by "an army of evil enviro-Nazis, intent on forcing vehicle electrification on a good-ole’-boy, V8-lovin’ populace" and a "failed Socialist-collectivist flop." He set the record straight with the fact that the $7,500 EV tax credit, fully available to Volt buyers, was enacted under the Bush administration.
There was some good news in February, when the 2012 model-year Volt started qualifying for single-occupant access to California’s HOV lanes. But then GM announced a five-week shutdown of Volt production. GM spokesman Chris Lee told MLive.com that Volt sales in January were "encouraging," but still weren't enough to keep continuing production. "We’re going to match production with demand," said Dan Akerson, GM's chief executive officer. "There are new variables in the equation, so we’ll see."
Production of the Volt was supposed to resume on April 23, but started up one week early. The Volt started its comeback—which continued throughout spring and summer of 2012. By July, the 2012 YTD results for the Chevy Volt tallied 8,817 units—more than triple the 2,745 year-to-date sales from a year earlier.
Despite the fact that nearly all the executives and top engineers from the Volt’s earliest days have moved on to other projects, the Volt (and the range-extended electric technology that makes it go) continue to evolve. The all-electric range of the 2013 model is expected to jump from 35 miles to 38 miles. New creature comforts and design features—such as colors, interior materials, armrests, storage systems and infotainment—will be added or enhanced. And there’s talk that the 2014 Chevrolet Volt will ditch its 83-horsepower 1.4-liter range-extending engine in favor of GM's 2.0-liter turbocharged Ecotec four-cylinder engine.
At this stage, the Chevy Volt has been established as a solid product, even if it isn't the game-changing vehicle that General Motors promised in 2007. But most observers would say that it's earned its place as a defining vehicle in the electric car movement. The Volt is certainly worthy of consideration by any car shopper seeking a super-efficient exhilarating daily ride.
Chevy Volt Stats
- Availability: Now
- Base MSRP: $39,100
- Est. tax credit: $7,500
- Technology: Plug-in Hybrid
- Body type: Sedan
- Seats: 4
- Range: 35 miles electric + gas
- Battery size: 16 kWh
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