Of Hybrids and Electrics: 2012 Chevy Volt

Steven Lang
by Steven Lang
of hybrids and electrics 2012 chevy volt

The Chevy Volt has probably been the most over-reviewed vehicle of modern times. You want some insights on a Volt? Go here, here, and here without ever leaving the homely confines of TTAC.

Then there are hundreds of reviews from other sites throughout the web and beyond. From Mommy blogs to the more conventional auto enthusiast locales, the Volt has been given tons of exposure and tens of millions of dollars in marketing.

Yet it flounders. GM decided to temporarily shut down the Hamtramck factory so that demand and supply can begin to balance themselves out. What happened? Did GM shoot right past the goal of mainstream tastes? Did the irrational exuberance of corporate marketeers transform the promise of the Volt into little more than a cynical plea for corporate funding?

I don’t believe the Volt deserves that much credit, or criticism. If you want to explore the strengths and shortcomings of the Volt, just look at the car for what it is.

The Walkaround: An observant reviewer once mentioned that the Volt looked like a cross between a Prius and a Cruze. In my eyes there are a lot of other ingredients in the styling recipe. Some work well such as the SVX inspired upper belt lane in black that carries a nice congruent flow to the rest of the vehicle. This unique design element offers a nice way of adding sleekness to an otherwise bulky design. However there’s one problem.

The Volt in person looks heavy and bulbous. An anti-hybrid design in a market where lightness is a virtue. The fender flares of the Volt bulge out in an almost squarish manner to accomodate 17 inch tires instead of the typical 14’s and 15’s that still find a home with the competition. Instead of simplicity, the Volt is weighed down with an enlarged rear end, a compact Cruze like front end, and a middle that to me looks more like an outgoing Sentra that had been given some serious weight gain pills.

Which is indeed what has happened. The Chevy Volt has been given several hundreds of pounds of very high strength steel along with a powertrain beefed up enough to handle two engines that can easily propel the Volt by themselves. The end result is a strong, bulky, and discombulated design that tries to make 3780 pounds of heft look sporting.

It’s a tall order.

The Interior: The sporting compromises stretch to the inside where Chevy apparently chose to install door panels and a center dash instrument panel that are based on the Chevy Camaro. It works surprisingly well. The ceramic styled panels are a nice departure from the chintzy low level vinyls and plastics that are found in most other hybrids. The upscale theme continues with leather seats that are double-stitched and exude a level of quality and comfort you would normally expect from a Cadillac instead of a Chevrolet.

GM does a great job with interior these days. The Volt is no exception.

All the usual touch points are well padded and the interior visuals rank among the best you will find in any hybrid. The wraparound dash is well-padded and, as is the norm these days, GM gave the steering wheel plenty of leather with a well balanced layout for controls all within a finger’s reach. The interior is almost an ergonomic masterpiece if it weren’t for one glaring thing.

Introducing the green bouncing ball.

The Feedback: In all my years of hybrid ownership I have never seen a system that offers as little real time information as the Volt. Forget about the brilliance that is the Cruze’s trip computer or the ability of the LEAF’s interface to improve the longevity of the battery with a few button pushes. The Volt simply offers a green ball that you have to constantly center to maximize MPG’s. Nothing more..

The Volt has no instant MPG’s. None. Want to know how well you’re driving given that the battery is done? Tough! There are no interfaces at all where drivers can immediately benchmark themselves.

Instead you are given a green ball that jumps around and changes color if, and only if, you accelerate hard or use regenerative braking. This may not sound like that big of a deal, and it wouldn’t normally be if we were talking about a Camry or some other vehicle that caters to those who only want the absolute basics of information.

But hybrid owners are different. They compete with MPG’s in the same way sports car enthusiasts compete with lap times. Hybrid owners want to be better and best… with fuel economy. They want to know that the long downhill run where the engine temporarily cut out yielded a near infinite level of fuel economy for them since only the battery was used. They want to win, in their own frugal way.

For whatever reason, GM chose not to offer the type of technical data that most hybrid owners (and millions of other drivers) use to amuse themselves during their boring commutes.

This lack of immediate technical feedback limits the Volt’s appeal. We now live in a world where a Prius offers constant cost per mile calculations, and even non-hybrids provide a wealth of valuable data available to the driver. I believe offering real time information to the Volt would make this model far more attractive and marketable than is now the case.

The Ride: On the road Chevy decided to couple a somewhat luxurious interior with a taut ride. You feel nearly everything on the road and with an MSRP of $46,165, you shouldn’t have to. But despite the Germanic thumps that come with the Volt’s ride… there are also some unusual benefits to the Volt’s design.

Handling is top notch. I would categorize the Lexus CT200h and Volt to be leaders in this segment in terms of their handling. However the Volt comes with a more laid back and luxurious interior that makes it a bit of a nicer companion for the long road trip. On a long drive the Volt is a better match than any other hybrid-only vehicle.

While the CT200h feels ‘tight’ to the point of near claustrophobia, the Volt has a bit more spaciousness to it. A family of four can get comfortable and remain so. There is a tunnel that encroaches on space. But this is also true for the CT200h. The ‘Lexus Prius’, that is the CT200h, represents the closest competitor to the Volt. By some everyday driving standards, the Volt far surpasses it.

Sans Battery: Then there were other elements to the drive that surprised me quite a bit. The Volt performs surprisingly well even outside of battery mode. I was able to get the fuel economy close to 43 mpg while using the 1.4 Liter 80 horsepower gas engine for most of the Volt’s long-distance driving. The powertrain’s ability to go back to the 149 horsepower battery during brief moments of coasting and in-town driving also helped, which makes me believe that the ’37 gas only’ EPA rating is a bit modest.

There is also a feeling of security you get with the Volt that you don’t get with most other hybrids. You feel the bulk of the vehicle in spite of the fact that the steering feels direct and easy. This is a major benefit in a car market where parents often want to encapsulate their kids away from the risks and dangers of the open road. GM should be given kudos for addressing one of the main reasons why families still avoid hybrids in this era of $4 gas.

The Build: One other aspect related to the ride that deserves kudos is the overall architecture, which may likely become a gold standard for the next generation of GM products. Over 70% of the Volt’s structure is made out of high strength steels, with the majority composed of ultra-high strength steel. As someone who has seen hundreds of salvage vehicles at the auctions with the words ‘biohazard’ scrawled on their windshields due to the prior occupant’s blood loss and in some cases, death, I believe this structural improvement alone is nearly as important to GM’s future as the dual mode hyrbid design of the Volt.

This commendable level of engineering translates into a directness and stability on the road that is better than most other hyrbid designs. The Chevy Volt feels like one strong, firm, supremely welded piece of steel. It’s also notably heavy at 3780 pounds. But unlike the thin panels and overall perceptual flimsiness of other hybrids, the Volt has a feeling of ruggedness that could become more appealing to mainstream buyers in the United States.

The mainstream consumer wants safety AND fuel economy; which the Volt definitely brings to the marketplace. Albeit at the price of a Cadillac before tax incentives are concerned.

The Price: If you are among the 13 states that provide a state and federal tax credit of $12,750, you have a choice to make. One one side of the marketplace is the aforementioned Lexus CT200h. A fourth generation hybrid that represents Toyota’s killer app in today’s marketplace. With a light foot and occasional glances over the course of a week, the CT200h provided me with over 51 miles per gallon and the first dose of adrenal excitement I’ve ever realized from a hybrid.

A loaded CT200h comes at right around $36,000 which is within $1000 of the Volt if you buy within the 13 states that offer generous state tax credits. Don’t buy from those states? Well, then the price /value ratio starts to deteriorate for the Volt. This is not surprising given that Toyota’s hybrid technology has been developed for over 15 years while the Volt is a first generation effort.


A consumer considering the Chevy Volt should be willing to ask themselves a few hard questions.

1) Am I willing to buy a vehicle whose technology is only in it’s early stages of development?

2) Do I want to change my driving style and see how my choice yields savings and MPG’s over time? Or do I just simply want to ‘go’ without a care about these things?

3) Am I willing to pay nearly double the price of a Chevy Cruze Eco for what amounts to a similar sized package that offers comparable highway fuel economy once the battery is depleted?

4) Is most of my driving done within a 30 to 45 mile range?

5) What about cost? Do I really care about a hybrid’s breakeven point versus an internal combustion engine? Or am I willing to pay more money for a vehicle that uses battery propulsion for most of it’s driving, and offers the added range of a gas engine.


Overall, the Volt reminds me a lot of the first generation Prius. The economies of it don’t make sense given today’s realities. But the technologies that have been developed within the Volt may truly change and evolve the automotive landscape. Everything from the Volt’s 400 pound lithium ion battery, to the advanced steels and polymers, to even the software that makes dual mode transportation possible, can now become a part of GM’s future product development.

The Volt may indeed become a long-term success story. But despite GM’s current best efforts, the Chevy Volt remains a work in progress that may take several years and multiple attempts to yield profit and popularity. I applaud GM for making it. Hopefully it will lead to better things.

Note: I received the obligatory gas, insurance, and use of the Volt for a week.

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2 of 88 comments
  • CRConrad CRConrad on Mar 19, 2012

    "1) Am I willing to buy a vehicle whose technology is only in it’s early stages of development?" Its. Its, its, its, its, its. ITS, dammit!!!

  • Glenroebuck Glenroebuck on Mar 19, 2012

    I have had two bose sound systems in my cars and they sound good to me, maybe I am not an audiophile enough to satisfy your question. The Tesla roadster sis 109 and legitimized the term bricking..so good luck with that purchase...I am sure the stereo sounds great.

  • Damon Thomas Adding to the POSITIVES... It's a pretty fun car to mod
  • GregLocock Two adjacent states in Australia have different attitudes to roadworthy inspections. In NSW they are annual. In Victoria they only occur at change of ownership. As you'd expect this leads to many people in Vic keeping their old car.So if the worrywarts are correct Victoria's roads would be full of beaten up cars and so have a high accident rate compared with NSW. Oh well, the stats don't agree.https://www.lhd.com.au/lhd-insights/australian-road-death-statistics/
  • Lorenzo In Massachusetts, they used to require an inspection every 6 months, checking your brake lights, turn signals, horn, and headlight alignment, for two bucks.Now I get an "inspection" every two years in California, and all they check is the smog. MAYBE they notice the tire tread, squeaky brakes, or steering when they drive it into the bay, but all they check is the smog equipment and tailpipe emissions.For all they would know, the headlights, horn, and turn signals might not work, and the car has a "speed wobble" at 45 mph. AFAIK, they don't even check EVs.
  • Not Tire shop mechanic tugging on my wheel after I complained of grinding noise didn’t catch that the ball joint was failing. Subsequently failed to prevent the catastrophic failure of the ball joint and separation of the steering knuckle from the car! I’ve never lived in a state that required annual inspection, but can’t say that having the requirement has any bearing on improving safety given my experience with mechanics…
  • Mike978 Wow 700 days even with the recent car shortages.