We’ve been hearing about the Chevrolet Volt for so long that it’s hard to believe that it is finally here. Or almost here. Close enough for a preview drive. And?
I never expected the Volt to look like the obviously impractical original concept. Similarly, I was not surprised that the production Volt resembles a prettified Prius, since the Toyota’s styling so successfully communicates its advanced technology to the general population. The most questionable aspect of the exterior design: the ultra-wide glossy black beltline moldings. They’re intended to disguise the small size of the side windows. Why not just make the windows larger? Because this would increase the load on the battery-powered AC.
Does the Volt’s interior seem like that of a $33,500 (post tax credit) car? Well, no. I was more impressed by the materials and workmanship of the much more conventional interior in the related, much less expensive, conventionally powered Cruze. But the Volt’s interior is distinctively styled, effectively communicates the car’s technology, and is significantly nicer than the interior in the Prius. If the Prius interior is good enough for a nearly $27,000 car (with nav)—and sales suggest that it is—then the Volt’s is good enough for a $33,500 car. Don’t care for the glossy white iPodish trim? Then get the dark trim instead. The reconfigurable LCD displays seem to provide a wealth of information, including a grade on your driving style (92 while I was trying to behave). But they provide no clear indication of when braking is hard enough to engage the conventional brakes (reducing efficiency). Also, no report of miles per kW-h while running off electricity. According to the GM exec in the back seat, few people desire such numerical statistics. Though GM will be adding features in the future—the Volt will be a work in progress. And more detailed reports are already available on the Internet, where the Volt regularly uploads data via OnStar. The controls on the center stack are the touch-sensitive type that recently debuted in the 2011 Ford Edge and Lincoln MKX. Whether or not you like them—I do—they’re the future. The oddest bit among the various odd bits of the interior: you must reach into a cave at the base of the center stack to grasp the shifter when it’s in Park.
The rake of the distant windshield is reasonable, obviating the need for windowlettes ahead of the doors. In the current GM fashion, the A-pillars are thick, if not quite to the point where they reduce safety more than they enhance it. Rearward visibility is considerably worse—the optional Park Assist Package is highly recommended. The front seats don’t feel as substantial or as solidly upholstered as those in the Cruze, but they do provide decent lateral support. Unlike in the Cruze, there’s only a single manual height adjustment, so the tilt of the seat cannot be adjusted. The rear seats are the weakest aspect of the car. Low to the floor, overly firm, and cramped, unless you’re a child (or the size of one) you won’t be comfortable. Cargo volume beneath the wiperless hatch is similarly marginal, but will do for typical around town errands. The Prius offers considerably more room for both rear passengers and cargo.
The Volt’s powertrain is more complex than previously imagined. Around town with the battery pack at a viable level of charge, the primary 149-horsepower electric motor-generator powers the car through a fixed gear ratio. At highway speeds this ratio becomes too short, so a second, smaller motor-generator engages the planetary gearset to reduce the ratio. Once the battery pack is depleted (figure 30-50 miles), a 84-horsepower 1.4-liter gas engine automatically starts. Around town it spins the smaller motor-generator to send power to the primary motor-generator via the battery pack. At highway speeds with the battery pack depleted, the second motor-generator again engages the planetary gearset to vary the transmission ratio, but now with the gas engine coupled to it. In this last mode the gas engine enjoys a mechanical connection to the front wheels. While this mechanical connection has purists a little perturbed, it is more efficient when running on gasoline. Personally, I’d prefer a mechanical connection at lower speeds for the same reason, though perhaps the powertrain design, with the engine only driving the planetary gearset through the smaller motor-generator, precludes this.
So, what does it all feel like? Surprisingly normal. I feared that a gas engine decoupled from the drivetrain and running to suit the needs of the battery would sound odd. Would the engine sometimes be racing while sitting at a traffic light? As it turns out, no. If anything, the Volt’s engine sounds less disconnected from the accelerator than that in the typical CVT-equipped conventional car. Transitions among the various modes are not only smoother than those in the Prius or Ford Fusion Hybrid, but are nearly undetectable. In some situations the engine might be a little too undetectable, as it sometimes generates a low frequency rumble right at the edge of perception. A barely perceptible noise can be more annoying than one a bit louder.
GM suggests that, given the high torque output of the primary motor-generator, the Volt feels about as strong at low speeds as a V6-powered sedan. Well, not really. But even with four adults aboard the Volt does feel considerably more energetic than a Prius, and almost as quick as the Ford Fusion Hybrid. Three driving modes are available, including one for mountains and “sport.” I detected little difference between normal and sport, apparently because my foot was too heavy. The modes make the most difference with the pedal less than half way to the floor. Moving the shifter from D to L aggressively engages brake-energy regeneration whenever you lift off the accelerator, nearly eliminating the need to use the brake pedal. I found this too aggressive for typical around town driving, but it would no doubt be welcome on a hilly road.
Only the first five miles of my drive were on battery power—there hadn’t been much time for a recharge since the car’s previous outing. I then babied the car for a while, and achieved about 35 MPG. The second half of my drive—when I was seeking the claimed V6-like low-speed performance—burned a gallon of gas every 28 miles. These figures are about five MPG short of the Fusion Hybrid when subjected to similar (mis)treatment, and about 10 to 15 MPG short of the Prius. GM envisioned the gas engine as backup power which most owners would not need often, so it was optimized for cost not fuel economy. They also talk about improving this aspect of the Volt in future iterations, with just about anything a potential future power source.
The biggest surprise: the Volt handles significantly better than either the Cruze or the Prius. GM has long demonstrated a talent for making cars feel larger and heavier than they actually are. With the Volt they’ve at long last accomplished the (for me at least) more desirable opposite. The steering isn’t exactly chatty, but through it even a fully occupied Volt feels light and agile, with minimal understeer, far exceeding my expectations. In contrast, even the latest Prius feels oddly heavy and pushes wide in turns. While the Volt is still certainly no sports car—even the Ford Fusion Hybrid feels a little sportier—it’ll serve well as a commuter. I sincerely hope the Volt team shares its chassis tuning tricks with the rest of GM.
Body motions are fairly well controlled, though some additional damping would be welcome. The Volt’s ride is a little firmer, busier, and noisier than that in the Cruze, but the Cruze rides better than anything else in its class. The Volt’s does ride better than the Prius and Fusion Hybrid. Among efficiency-maximizing alt-energy cars, this is about as good as it gets.
People have been critical of the Volt’s pricing, but a $7,500 tax credit brings the net MSRP down to $33,500. Nearly everything, including nav and the fancy displays, is standard. Options are limited to heated leather seats, the Park Assist Package, and polished wheels. TrueDelta’s car price comparison tool suggests that the Prius lists for about $4,000 less when both cars are equipped with leather, nav, and 17-inch alloys. A Ford Fusion Hybrid with nav lists for only $1,150 less. Adjust for feature differences (most notably a sunroof, unavailable on the Volt), and the Ford’s advantage increases to about $3,000. Adding leather to both cars adds about $1,000 to both figures—Ford kicks in additional savings when all of the boxes are checked. Three or four grand isn’t pocket change, but it seems reasonable for the Volt’s extended electric-only capability. Likely a better value: GM is offering a lease for $2,500 down and $350 a month.
So, my first drive of the Chevrolet Volt included a few surprises, nearly all of them to the upside. The largest: oddly enough, the handling. The powertrain most impressed with its normalcy. The largest disappointment: the small rear seat. GM has clearly put a great deal of thought and effort into this car, and achieved a much higher level of detailed execution and refinement than I thought possible just a few years ago. My personal commute extends all the way from the second floor of my home to the first. So no Volt for me. But if you daily spend an hour or two commuting, and the thought of expending no gas in the process excites you, then go ahead and get in line. At least initially, there’s likely to be one.
GM provided the vehicle, insurance and very little gasoline for this review
Michael Karesh owns and operates TrueDelta, an online source of automotive pricing and reliability data