For a vehicle named after a unit of measure, the Chevrolet Volt is a difficult car to pin down. From its drivetrain to its efficiency rating, the Volt defies categorization. From price point to performance, it defies comparison. It’s a rolling contradiction, this car, part electric car and part gas-burner, part high-concept moonshot and part workmanlike commuter. And yet for all its mysteries, contradictions and (yes) compromises, the Volt is also a deceptively simple car to use. Which makes it what exactly?
Let’s start with the easy stuff. Whether posed or on-the-go, the Volt’s styling exudes a sense of quiet anonymity; it’s distinctive compared to anonymous C-segment sedans like the Chevy Cruze it’s based on, but it lacks the Leaf’s sense of eco-occasion. Cues from the bold Volt Concept cut through its windtunnel-defined shape, but they seem tacked-on rather than integral to the overall design. As a result, the American take on Prius design values ends up looking a bit disjointed in three dimensions.
Not that the locals of the Detroit Metro area seem to mind. Kids gawk at the Volt from backseats, and employees at donut shops ask if “that’s one of them Volts.” It never gets mobbed, but the reaction is always some variation of “sweet.” After years of hype, the Volt may not exactly be a rockstar, but it’s at least a popular indie artist with a crossover single or two.
But complex characters can struggle achieving mainstream appeal, and the Volt is no exception. Underneath its hood lurks a combination of clutches, gears, motors and an engine that, like any other hybrid system, continuously varies its operations based on conditions and input. Unlike any other hybrid, however, the Volt emphasizes all-electric range, and returns “25-50″ miles of it as advertised. Using moderate hypermiling techniques, the Volt will cross 45 miles of board-flat Michigan terrain, but stretching the range further requires antisocial levels of right foot restraint.
And most drivers won’t be tempted to go easy on the Volt’s “gas” pedal. At full throttle, the Volt cruises seamlessly to freeway speeds with quiet competence, giving no reason to doubt its nine second-ish 0-60 time. At lower throttle positions, however, the “instant torque” promise of the Volt’s electric drivetrain has been computer mapped away in favor of better efficiency. “Sport mode” provides more direct access to the torque at lower throttle positions (“Sport” and “Normal” mode pedal maps are identical at over 80% throttle), but GM’s engineers say the mode encourages inefficient driving… even though they prefer it themselves.
But switching into “Sport” isn’t the only change the discerning driver will want to make before taking off in the Volt. Move the chunky gear lever past “Drive” into “Low,” and a regenerative engine-braking effect slows the Volt as soon as you get off the “gas.” Combined with the more precise pedal feel of “Sport” mode, this setting concentrates the driver on matching throttle position with road conditions, and (with a little luck and planning) allows nearly brake pedal-free driving. It’s just too bad that the Volt’s most satisfying and engaging setting requires two separate settings changes from default.
But despite the need for options-menu fiddling and all its underlying complexity, the Volt’s drivetrain largely leaves a good impression of seamless power. Though it lacks the pure instant torque of an non-throttle-mapped EV, it also lacks the two-mode feel of a parallel hybrid. Where a Prius would juggle between a weak gas engine and strong electric torque, the Volt simply eases forward on a non-stop (if unhurried) wave of power. It’s a point-and-shoot experience that lends some credence to the Volt’s pretensions of mass-market accessibility, and when the battery’s music stops, the transition to range-extended mode is admirably unobtrusive. In fact, the only time the Volt’s gas engine really registers is in high-load throttle applications after the jump to gas-generated power. Only then does the 1.4 liter engine rev hard enough to be heard as well as felt through the pedal, but the experience is surprisingly normal until you ease off the throttle and the low-frequency engine noises bounce around a bit before settling back into a wallflower grumble.
In a parked Volt, the steering wheel exhibits GM-typical lightness, allowing for effortless parking lot operation. On the road, the tiller firms up ever so slightly, but never generates a truly feelsome experience. But what the steering lacks in feel, it makes up for with sharpness, translating subtle wheel movements into crisp direction changes. With its 400+ pound battery mounted so low to the road and towards the rear of the vehicle, the Volt’s center of gravity is low and central, giving the car far better handling characteristics than its concept and weight figure would lead one to believe. Eventually it will push forward over its front wheels, revealing its low-rolling-resistance tires as the weak link in the handling equation. Still, at legal speeds, the Volt’s handling is plenty sharp. In the real world, the Volt’s relatively modest power output would be the far more limiting factor.
If quiet competence defines the Volt’s powertrain and handling, the ride is on roughly the same page. Body stiffness is admirable, and road noise is remarkably well-controlled, even when there’s no gas engine noise to drown out the tire thrum. Over rough Michigan roads, the Volt’s 3,781 lb curb weight finally comes into play, as potholes raise the first signs of unseemly juddering. There’s hardly any feedback through the wheel, but the seat of your pants will be sure to let you know when the Volt gets unsettled. Luckily, the shifter’s “Low” position ensures that maintaining composure is as easy as lifting off the throttle.
For most drivers, however, many of these observations might seem nit-picky. The reality is that, if driven in the detached American style, the Volt is incredibly easy to get along with. Its commuter appliance roots and mission are in full evidence, and the sharper “Sport” mode and motor-braking “Low” speed add a few welcome wrinkles for the more engaged driver. It’s unmistakeably a “real car,” and GM’s engineers deserve credit for translating Bob Lutz’s bold vision and its complex Two-Mode Hybrid-derived innards into such a harmonious, approachable whole.
But the Volt is more than just its engineering, and the cabin experience is where the reality of executing such an ambitious program begins to show. Clearly much of the Volt’s $41k pricetag is spent on its unique and surprisingly-refined drivetrain, which left GM’s interior designers and accountants with more than a few challenges. Interior design continues the theme established by the exterior: an unremarkable whole punctuated by seemingly tacked-on design cues that rescue the look from pure mediocrity but still come up short of a coherent design. Acres of soft-ish black plastic is broken up by hard plastic door inserts that sweep into distinctive flat-topped shelf elements which wrap across the dashboard, but none of these elements has a sense of purpose beyond “adding design.” And the door inserts don’t exactly improve the quality impression, especially when outfitted with an available graphics package.
The dramatic center console dominates the stripped down dash, with a glossy hard-plastic design that invites inevitable comparisons to an Apple iPod. Good materials and novel touch-sensitive controls help lift the cockpit’s overall quality impression, although the pop culture reference point is a bit obvious and under-inspired. Worse still, it fails utterly to live up to the promise of its Apple-alike styling when it comes to the user experience. The lack of button definition and intuitive layout mean you spend a lot of time looking for even basic controls like H/VAC, and subtle labeling doesn’t make the search any easier. The lesson is clear: an iPod covered in buttons is no iPod at all.The Volt may have little to no learning curve when it comes to driving, but in-car controls will take some time to adjust to.
The not-quite-an-iPod feel continues with the seven-inch screens that crown the center console and make up the Volt’s instrument panel. Some functions require input from the console’s buttons and wheels, some require touchscreen inputs, meaning more learning curve and more distraction. The division of labor between the traditional instrument panel and the console screen is also confusing, as “drive mode” selection requires pushing a button on the central console, but the options are displayed in the IP. Gear selection is also hampered by its tiny readout located far from the action in the top right corner of the IP. Sure, the Volt’s two screens look fantastic and can display a wealth of information about everything from your driving style and energy usage to navigation and music, but more thought needs to go into the user experience before it’s anywhere near as approachable as the rest of the vehicle’s operations.
Leg, head and hip room are more than sufficient up front, and though the seats lack definition and lumbar support, they didn’t cause outright discomfort (although older backs should spend some time in them before buying). Leather seats and steering wheel bring the Volt a little closer to a price-appropriate quality impression, but cost extra. The manual seat adjustment lever and parts-bin window switches hurt the quality picture the worst.
Backseat accommodations are considerably less plush, as rear legroom is largely a function of the size (and consideration) of the person seated in front of you. Still, four adults can be seated with sufficient leg comfort, although nothing will prevent a six-footer from bumping their head against the Volt’s long rear hatch. Between the poor headroom, more road noise filtering through the hatchback, and the cheap hard plastic console covering what would be the middle seat (which is home to the Volt’s battery), the backseat is one of the Volt’s bigger disappointments. Still, it’s not “avoid at all costs” uncomfortable, and should suffice for the kind of short trips that the Volt tackles most efficiently.
As indicated earlier, getting 40 miles of EV range from a fully-charged Volt in relatively flat terrain was not a momentous challenge. In this respect, the Volt lives up to its most basic promise. In range-extended or “charge sustaining” mode, after the EV range has been used up, indicated average fuel economy readings ranged from about 32 MPG to about 38 MPG. Attempts to get sub-30 MPG mileage on rural roads were thwarted, although a greater disrespect for posted speed limits (and more varied topography) might have made it achievable. Still, 35 MPG should be readily available, and hypermilers might well see more (at least until they’re shot by a road-raging commuter). This isn’t stop-the-presses efficient, and GM emphasizes that its range extender is about freedom more than getting the most for each gallon of gas. Helpfully, Onstar offers a smartphone app and online usage tracking to help time, and optimize charge-ups, even alerting the driver via text message when charging is complete.
The general impression of the Volt, then, is a mixed bag. Especially once carefully explained, the Volt’s drivetrain inspires serious engineer awe, all the more so because its operation is so seamless and simple for even inexperienced drivers. The fact that it salvages know-how from the disastrous Two-Mode Hybrid program makes it all the more appealing: GM used some already-broken eggs for this omelet. Still, it’s clear that the Volt’s revolutionary drivetrain and hefty battery dominated development, leaving such details as design, quality impression, backseat accommodations and user interface for non-driving controls short of money and attention. On the other hand, those who appreciate the Volt’s unique ability to drive 40 miles on electricity with unlimited range thereafter will not be overly vexed by these compromises.
Strangely then, the decision to buy a Volt comes relentlessly back to the two factors we’ve known for some time: the drivetrain and the price. This is, ultimately, an endorsement of the Volt in the sense that it does exactly what it’s supposed to without drama or unreasonable sacrifice (beyond the price point). And since the Volt will no more be purchased for purely economic reasons than will a Nissan Leaf or Toyota Prius, the absolute uniqueness of what it is able to accomplish makes the $41k base price seem considerably more reasonable. After all, for the price of an anonymous Mercedes C350, you can have something that’s increasingly rare in the automotive landscape: a truly unique vehicle with a drivetrain unlike any other, and the option of doing much of your daily driving free from the gas pump. It’s one choice in the growing segment of alt-drivetrain vehicles, and if you have the money and inclination, it’s not one to be dismissed out of hand. Until we learn more about living with the Volt from long-term testing, comparisons with emerging competitors and consumer reporting, however, our sense of this complex car and its role in the marketplace will remain clouded.
General Motors provided airfare, accommodations, meals and entertainment for this review. What entertainment, you ask? Dinner on the final day of testing was held at a go-kart facility, to which attending writers and PR staff were given free access. For what it’s worth, your humble correspondent was able to record the fastest lap amongst the attending journalists, and scored the fourth-fastest lap at the track in the month of October.