Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
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. Unlike fully electric cars, it won't leave you on the side of the road wishing for an extension cord.
Volt's four-seat, hatchback design makes it a very good all-purpose vehicle, and its electrified powertrain makes for very low operating costs. From the start, we found the Chevrolet Volt fun to drive. However, its initial sticker price made it a pricey investment, even after federal and state tax credits. For 2014, however, the price was lowered about $5,000.
For 2013, a new Hold button allowed the driver to manually choose whether to use the Volt's available electric power immediately, or save it for later use. This can help maximize electric range in stop-and-go city driving. The Chevrolet Volt gets an EPA-estimated range of up to 38 miles running on the battery alone. After that, the engine kicks in and you're driving a regular gasoline-powered car.
Options include a moderately priced navigation system that uses Chevrolet's 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 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 gasoline 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. Drivers who can plug it in for charging while at work can double its practical electric range. Drivers who do this say they use so little gas that they have to worry about gasoline going bad in the tank.
Combined with the gasoline engine, the Volt has a total range of about 380 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 from 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's changed. Ford's C-MAX plug-in hybrid offers up to 21 miles in electric mode only, and can go up to 600 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. The Toyota Prius plug-in, priced below $30,000 for 2014, has the most cargo space of the bunch, but a far shorter all-electric range.
Volt and other plug-in hybrids qualify for a federal rebate, plus additional credits in some states.
The 2014 Chevrolet Volt ($34,185) comes with cloth upholstery; automatic climate control; keyless ignition/entry; remote start; a tilt-and-telescoping leather-wrapped steering wheel; height-adjustable driver's seat; cruise control; Chevrolet's MyLink touchscreen interface with voice controls, Bluetooth and smartphone integration; and a six-speaker audio system with CD player, MP3, satellite radio capability, auxiliary audio jack and USB port. Exterior features include automatic headlights, heated outside mirrors and 17-inch painted aluminum wheels.
Options include an Interior Trim package ($1,395) that replaces the cloth upholstery with leather and adds heated front seats and a removable rear seat armrest with storage. Standalone options include navigation ($895), a premium, 7-speaker Bose energy efficient audio system ($495) and alloy wheels ($595/$695). An available low-emissions package for California and New York is free of charge, but this option must be added at the time of order.
Safety features include eight airbags: front-impact, front- and rear-passenger side impact, and full cabin head-protection curtains. The Volt also gets stability control (ESC), anti-lock brakes (ABS), and OnStar telematics with features like crash notification and on-demand roadside assistance (with three years of service included). The Volt has been named a Top Safety Pick by the insurance industry's Institute for Highway Safety, and earned five of five stars in four of five U.S. government crash tests. Optional safety equipment includes an Enhanced Safety Package 1 ($575) with an auto-dimming rearview mirror, rear park assist and rearview camera. The Enhanced Safety Package 2 ($595) includes front park assist, forward collision alert and lane departure warning.
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 relatively 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.
Volt's gauges are two seven-inch, high-resolution full-color LCDs. One is a user-configurable cluster in front of the driver, while the other shows audio, climate and navigation functions at the top of the center stack. The screens are so engaging that, especially when you're first getting used to the car and evaluating the various display options, they can divert attention from the task of driving. Eventually, of course, the novelty wears off.
Between these two screens, the driver can find just about 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's as much space for rear passengers as 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; actually, more like what you'd expect in a sports car or coupe, although folding the rear seats does 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 operating 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 that the brakes work extremely well, whether crawling through traffic or hauling the Volt down from highway speeds.
The Volt is also quite comfortable, but certainly not floaty. The placement of its battery pack creates a lower center of gravity than 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 to satisfy most drivers.
The Volt's safety package is more elaborate and complex than found 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, trying to keep the battery-stack icon as tall as possible. Distraction, of course, is invariably a serious issue when attempting to check data and control efficiency while driving.
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). We weren't 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 Chevrolet Volt at 98 MPGe.
On 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 in 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, if possible, which reduces charging time to about four hours. Pricing for the 240-volt unit and installation varies, 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 has been high compared to rivals. The sizable price cut for 2014 might tempt more shoppers who applaud fuel-efficiency into considering a plug-in.
Laura Burstein reported from Los Angeles, with J.P. Vettraino in Detroit, Jim McCraw in Rochester, Michigan. Mitch McCullough contributed to this report.
Chevrolet Volt ($34,185).
Options As Tested
Premium trim package ($1,395) with leather upholstery, heated front seats, leather-wrapped steering wheel, removable rear seat armrest with storage; MyLink with Navigation ($895); 7-speaker Bose energy efficient audio system ($495).
Chevrolet Volt ($39,145).
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