After years of anticipation and inflated expectations, the Chevrolet Volt still manages to impress, bringing a new type of motoring in a package that's remarkably refined, comfortable and livable.
For certain buyers, it's perfect. Who are those buyers? People who want two things: to drive an appreciable distance on electric power and to not worry about what happens if the battery runs out. After a full charge from household electricity, the car travels roughly 40 miles on battery power alone before its 1.4-liter four-cylinder gas engine turns on to keep the car moving, in what Chevrolet calls range-extending mode. Contrary to popular belief, the generator's job is not to recharge the battery. You want to fill the battery with cheap power from the grid, not the kind you generate with gas. Once the range extender fires up, it simply maintains the battery's near-empty charge, while the rest of the juice moves the car forward.
The Volt's EPA ratings aren't finalized, and neither is the format in which they'll be presented, but the simple way to explain the Volt's efficiency is to say it goes 25 to 50 miles on battery power and gets roughly 35 to 40 mpg once the engine turns on. The 9.3-gallon gas tank translates to more than 310 miles of additional range. Arguably the biggest strike against the Volt is that it requires premium gas, which takes a bite out of the money you were hoping to save when you have to drive it in range-extending mode.
With all vehicles — be they electric or petroleum-powered — efficiency varies with driving style, temperature, number of passengers and other conditions, such as terrain, which is why everything's cited as a range. In optimal conditions at the Volt's national media launch — a mild day requiring no heating or air conditioning and driving on flat roads, seldom at more than 45 mph — I, my co-driver and a passenger traveled more than 40 miles on battery power. A lightfoot driver traveling with one passenger made it 57 miles.
During about 100 miles in range-extending mode, my Volt's trip computer averaged from the mid-30s to 42 mpg, and it was clear the higher numbers came in city and middle-speed driving, not on the highway.
Mileage of 35 to 40 mpg is quite good for a car this size and style, but it still seems disappointing when compared with the Toyota Prius. Though the conventional hybrid Prius is philosophically different from the Volt in important ways, it's arguably the Volt's biggest competitor, rated at 50 mpg combined, on regular gas, and priced at $21,400 for the 2010 model. The Volt's list price is $40,280, and it's eligible for a $7,500 federal tax credit. The three-year, 36,000-mile lease option is pretty attractive at $350 per month with $2,500 down. (The customer doesn't get the tax credit with the lease deal; it's worked into the lease.)
In a side-by-side comparison, it all depends on how far you drive. The Prius gets 50 mpg from the get-go. The Volt gets, on the low side, 35 mpg, but that starts after roughly 40 miles on battery power. If you drive the Volt 40 miles on electric and 1 mile on gas, that's pretty damn good mileage. If you drive 80 miles, with 40 of them on the battery, that's 70 mpg for the trip. The Volt wins on gas used. Fortunately, on a per-mile basis, household electricity is typically one-half to one-sixth the cost of gas, which helps compensate for the premium price of premium gas. Of course, if you just don't want to burn petroleum at any price, for environmental, political or other reasons, the Volt has you covered.
If you want a car you can drive for hundreds of miles a day with exceptional gas mileage, the Prius remains your best option. A clean diesel like the Volkswagen Golf or Jetta also would do a nice job. What those cars can't do is drive petroleum-free.
The Volt will launch by year's end in California, Washington, D.C., New York City and Austin, Texas. It will then hit dealerships in New Jersey, Connecticut, Michigan and the rest of Texas in the first quarter of 2011. Additional markets will be added gradually, reaching all 50 states within 12 to 18 months, according to Chevrolet. The company's goal is to build 10,000 Volts for 2011 and 30,000 for 2012.
The Volt is so different from every other vehicle on the market; the details could fill several normal car reviews. We'll continue to report on the Volt as it comes to market and as we get more time in it, but for this introduction I'll talk about the basics of how it drives and what it will be like to live with, and I'll address some of the most common questions and concerns. I'll leave the discussion of what the Volt "is" until the end.
A New Kind of Quiet
What really stands out is that the Volt is very quiet, even among electrics. Quiet acceleration is a characteristic of electric cars that we've come to expect, and the Volt's cabin itself is exceptionally quiet. Wind, tire and road noise are minimal. On the highway, I expected more noise to penetrate the side windows, which is often an unfortunate shortcoming of the thin windows many high-efficiency cars use. No such problem here. In all regards, the Volt has the Prius beat on cabin noise.
There is one noise anomaly, though: Opening the windows when in motion brought on a buffeting sensation about as serious as I've ever experienced, and as enduring; imagine the sound and feeling when you're being pursued by a helicopter. Usually you can open another window just a crack and extract yourself from your Michael Bay-directed nightmare, but in the Volt, the pummeling persisted. Ultimately, I found the right combination of apertures all around, but the sound never vanished completely.
I was also pleased to find no other extraneous noises, like the buzzing electric brake booster pump in the Mitsubishi i-MiEV or the humming, percolating cooling system in the Tesla Roadster that had me craving coffee, mile after mile. Though the Volt's battery is similarly liquid-cooled, the engineers said the cooling action probably didn't activate in the mild weather. They promised it's never intrusive anyway. The Tesla, in the same kind of weather, certainly was.
The Volt's acceleration was a pleasant surprise. In my Quick Drive test of a development Volt, I noted that the prototype didn't accelerate as quickly as I'd expected, perhaps because we had four occupants. This time it was me, two passengers and some luggage, so the weight couldn't have been too different, and I found it quite responsive off the line. It does zero to 60 mph in less than nine seconds. (The Prius is more like 10 seconds.) Passing power is adequate, but it doesn't match the off-the-line thrust.
If the change from battery-only to range-extending modes is interesting, it's only because of how uneventful it is. What's happening under the surface changes, but the driving experience doesn't. You might hear the four-cylinder engine turn on. What you won't do is feel it; it's as imperceptible as any hybrid or start-stop engine I've experienced, and probably better. The engine runs over a range of speeds, but it's typically at its slowest and quietest when the car is the same.
Volt engineers call this a load-following strategy. You accelerate from a stop silently using some reserve battery power, and then the gas engine spins up the generator to compensate. Sometimes it seems a little out of sync, but it's more natural-sounding than the average continuously variable automatic transmission's constant drone, and it definitely provides more linear acceleration than you get in a Prius or Ford Fusion Hybrid. Perhaps most important, it has the same feel as the electric-only mode.
To clarify what I mean by reserve battery power, here's what it really means when the battery is empty: The Volt uses only 65 percent of its battery pack's capacity, which is one of the strategies electric and hybrid car manufacturers use to extend the battery's life. When the readout shows 0 miles next to the battery symbol and the generator fires up, the battery is at what Chevy calls "customer zero." For the driver's purposes, that's when it's empty. In practice, though, the battery still provides power for full acceleration, and the generator maintains the customer zero level so the reserve is always there. When you come to a stop, or even occasionally when you coast, the engine turns off again.
There are three drive modes and two forward transmission settings. The first two modes, Normal and Sport, apply to battery-only and range-extending operation. Normal is your baseline, which is a mix of efficiency and power. Sport makes the accelerator pedal more sensitive, though it doesn't make the car quicker overall. If you floor it in Normal mode, the Volt accelerates just as quickly as it would in Sport mode.
The most unique setting is Mountain mode. As I mentioned, the generator makes enough power to accelerate the car and keep it moving, but it can't do it as quickly as the battery can. The generator maintains enough of a buffer in the battery that, during normal driving, there's enough juice to give a solid launch and maintain the character of the car. Where you run into trouble is if you encounter steep hills and you run that buffer down. It's possible that in the most extreme, sustained climbs, the generator won't keep up and you'll see acceleration diminish.
Mountain mode is something you activate in anticipation of prolonged uphill driving, such as a mountain pass. It's not like selecting a low gear in a normal car — something you do at the last minute when you hit the hills. You're best off activating Mountain mode ahead of time. This allows the generator to work at full output to put some reserve power in the battery pack. Remember when I said you don't want to charge the battery using gasoline energy? This is the exception.
In effect, Mountain mode raises "customer zero" to a higher part of the battery's chargeable range, increasing the buffer size. For example, my car's readout said I had nine miles of battery-only range left, but when I turned on Mountain mode, the gas engine started up and began to build up a larger buffer.
The transmission doesn't have gears per se, but it does have the familiar PRNDL selector, where Drive and Low are your forward modes. As in other electric cars, Low mode doesn't change gearing, so you can use it at any speed; it simply ties regeneration more closely to the accelerator. As in all hybrids and electrics, regeneration is the process whereby the drive motor, serving as a generator, uses the car's inertia to recharge the battery, recapturing some of the spent energy. It takes place when coasting and braking. Though it also happens in Drive mode, Low mode provides more regeneration and the equivalent of engine braking as you let off the accelerator; it allows you to use the brake pedal less.
Honestly, I wasn't as disgruntled by the brakes as I have been in most hybrids. The Volt's feel more natural and linear on application, if a bit less so on release. Here again, the advantage over the Prius is demonstrable.
Ride & Handling
Another big plus is the Volt's ride quality, which feels pretty rich. It isolates you well from the road, and the car gives a sense of solidity. Combined with the quiet cabin, it makes for a pretty comfortable experience, and in a car designed to go hundreds of miles without a recharge or refuel, this is a very good thing. Interstate trip? Sure, why not.
The Volt actually handles quite well, too. I like the power steering's tuning. Because the 435-pound T-shaped battery pack is mounted low under the center console and rear seats, the Volt's center of gravity is somewhere between 1.5 and 2 inches lower than a comparable car's, according to Chevy. In terms of vehicle dimensions, that's a lot. The Volt's track — the distance between the left and right wheels — is also relatively wide. All of this combines to give the car a very grounded feel.
The Volt is prone to understeer when heading into a corner, but it seemed to me the battery pack — whose top member is under the seats, close to the rear wheels — gave the car better front/rear weight distribution than the front-drive average of 60/40 percent. Chevrolet said the figure is actually 61.5/38.5 percent. In my experience, inertia said otherwise.
Speaking of weight, the Volt feels a bit heavy on curvy roads. The low-rolling-resistance tires are pretty good for their type, but they still allow for some sliding about. Overall, the car feels more substantial and solid than it does heavy.
Space for Four
Due to the battery pack's central location, the Volt seats four. There's enough room in front and back for adults; at 6 feet tall, I was well-accommodated in the backseat, where I found the ride quality as good as it was in the front. Visibility is a mixed bag: The split rear window design, which is often derided in the Prius, Honda Insight and other efficient cars, isn't too bad; the majority of my rear view was through the top window. The C-pillars also weren't too obstructive. For anyone who wants additional aid, a $695 option gets you a backup camera and front and rear sonar sensors. More of a concern is the liftgate's window, which is more horizontal than vertical. Come rain and snow, you'll probably wish you had a rear wiper.
The front view isn't quite as positive. Like many aerodynamic cars, the Volt has a shallow rake to its windshield, and that puts the A-pillars far forward. Even worse, these pillars are wide. They really bugged me on winding roads. Also, the roof extends forward far enough that I found it hard to see traffic signals when at intersections — shades of the Chevrolet Camaro. It improved matters some when I lowered my seat, but I would have preferred the higher perch.
Strictly by the numbers, the Prius' seating dimensions are greater than the Volt's in all but hip room and shoulder room (see them compared), with the greatest difference in backseat legroom: 36 inches to the Volt's 33.9. As I said, I found it workable anyway. The cargo volume is more dramatically different. The Volt offers 10.6 cubic feet behind the backseat, where the Prius has 21.6. In both cars, the backseats fold forward for more room.
Overall, the Volt's cabin quality is good. I say overall because the plastic door inlays on many of the test cars were conspicuous colors like light gray and neon green, some of which incorporated graphics that would look more appropriate on a Scion or Mini, or — egads! — a Saturn Ion. They drew mixed reviews. Some colors, especially the solid ones, were more palatable for the masses. My guess is many buyers will go for the more "normal" look. Decent cloth seats are standard, and leather upholstery is optional.
I also wasn't keen on the center control panel, with its touch-sensitive buttons rather than the usual mechanical kind. For one thing, the pearl-colored panel seems to be aping iPods, and even iPods aren't that color anymore. The alternative gray color didn't exude quality, either, and neither one's labels are particularly legible, daytime or night. Bluish backlighting is never a good choice for clarity.
The hard surface, with nothing but an electronic "click" to indicate the command was received, is unsatisfying, as I've said about Ford's MyFordTouch. I suspect the cost of this technology, which ultimately should be cheaper than the conventional button approach, is the real reason behind its adoption, but a Chevy representative said it's desirable because it theoretically can allow future upgrades, such as changes in the number and/or layout of buttons.
On the other end of the spectrum, the LCD screens of the instrument panel and standard navigation are brilliant — high resolution, beautifully designed and easy to understand with no training. I'll give a little more detail in accompanying photos, and you can also check out an earlier post from our blog, KickingTires. Suffice it to say, the Volt shows how many miles remain in electric operation and in range-extending mode. The navigation touch-screen also controls the heating and air conditioning, the standard Bose premium stereo, and a variety of settings and programmable charging features.
Compared with battery-electric cars that have longer ranges, the Volt's charging needs are pretty modest. You can plug it into a common 120-volt outlet and recharge a depleted battery pack in eight to 10 hours. That's on a 15-ampere circuit, which is the normal current level. If the circuit is shared with other equipment and you blow a fuse, you can switch to an 8-amp charging mode, but that extends the charging time.
To charge the battery fully in roughly four hours, you can opt for 240-volt, 30-amp charging using a wall-mounted Voltec charging station priced at a relatively affordable $490 for Volt buyers, excluding installation.
The Volt doesn't support direct-current "fast charging," known as level three, because the gas backup is always a faster and likely cheaper way to add miles than a level-three public station would be.
Neat Provisions for a New Vehicle Type
With this new approach come some interesting features and behaviors. Because off-peak electric rates are usually lower than they are during the daytime, you can program the Volt to charge at a preset time, using the dashboard's touch-screen, a smart-phone app or the new myvolt.com site. You can also monitor charging progress, fuel level, miles of range and other parameters. OnStar, which comes standard with a five-year subscription on every Volt, is what enables this degree of connectivity.
Battery and cabin conditioning are critical in maximizing range, so the Volt can also warm or cool the battery pack and cabin while it's plugged in so you don't use any of the battery power to reach the optimal temperatures. You don't want it drawing electricity all the time unnecessarily, though, so you can schedule this to occur by inputting your expected departure time.
Optional automatic heated seats are another new provision: Warm seats tend to make occupants ease off on the electric cabin heat, which uses a lot of power when in battery-only mode. The automatic feature attempts to balance the seat and cabin heat to maximize efficiency.
The Volt doesn't currently make any synthetic noise outside the car to alert pedestrians of its presence, as the Nissan Leaf does. However, if you flash the high-beams, it also double-chirps the horn. It ribbits at pedestrians, like a frog.
It's not good for a gas engine to go unused for too long, so the Volt has an Engine Maintenance mode whereby the engine will start up automatically if it hasn't done so for about 45 days. It runs just long enough to warm up and get the fluids going — as little as a few minutes if you're driving and a few more if you're just sitting still. It won't do this unless you're in the car and it's turned on.
You never want gasoline to get old in your car, but for some users the Volt could run on battery power alone for days, weeks or months on end. Thanks to a sealed, pressurized fuel system, the Volt can handle it, but once a whole year passes, the car will prompt its owner to add some gas, which freshens it up. If the tank's too full or the owner ignores the prompts, it will start the engine and burn off some gas, using something like Mountain mode to keep a higher level of battery charge. What? You don't want your car burning gas? If you have a tank of year-old gas in your Volt, you're probably doing pretty well in that regard.
Regular maintenance will be anything but regular. In the expected usage, oil changes can occur infrequently, approximately every 18 to 24 months. Because engine use will vary widely from car to car, the Volt's oil-life monitor will keep tabs and alert the owner when it's time. The oil filter is designed to last 24 months. The use of regenerative braking is also expected to reduce brake wear, as it does on most hybrids and electrics, so brake jobs should be less frequent as well.
The Volt's lithium-ion battery pack has eight-year, 100,000-mile warranty coverage along with three-year, 36,000-mile bumper-to-bumper coverage.
The Volt is equipped with eight airbags, including the frontal pair and knee airbags for both front occupants. There are also front-seat-mounted side-impact torso airbags and side curtains to cover the front and rear door windows. Antilock brakes and an electronic stability system with traction control are also included. OnStar provides a variety of safety features, including automatic rescue notification in the event of an airbag deployment. For a full list of standard safety features, click here.
Volt in the Market
Considering all the hype and waiting, I thought the Volt was destined to disappoint. So far, it hasn't. With time it could prove to be the model that makes drivers comfortable enough with the experience of plug-in motoring that they'll consider a battery-electric without the safety net of an onboard generator as their next car.
The biggest obstacle in the Volt's way is GM's reputation. You can't underestimate the distaste for GM in the U.S. It wasn't good before the government bailout, and it's off the charts now. Everything GM does seems a target for criticism, and the Volt's price has proved to be no exception.
At a glance, the Volt looks expensive, but once you subtract the tax credit it's not as bad. Once you compare its refinement and superior driving experience to the Prius, which itself exceeds $30,000 when loaded with features, you're closer still. Then you have the lower cost of electric-only driving and, with any luck, the kind of reliability we've come to expect from hybrids, and the Volt looks better still. Chevrolet is wise to offer a reasonable lease deal to satisfy people who think the purchase price is too high, and to get a lot of people into a product in which the company is extremely confident.
Critics who think GM didn't deserve a bailout should recognize that what's done is done, and the taxpayers stand a chance of recouping more of its loan money if Chevy doesn't take a bath on every Volt it sells. Imagine the uproar if the price started low and Chevy raised it later. The Volt's price is a problem only if buyers don't turn out. I suspect they will. Here's how it will work: If the Volt is priced too high, the market will say so. The cars will sell for less than sticker price, and maybe the suggested retail price will even be lowered. Having driven the Volt and experienced the enthusiasm out in the market, I wouldn't count on that.
What Exactly Is the Volt?
For every 500 car shoppers, there's one technophile like me who will get his undies in a bunch if I don't explain what the Volt is — if that's even possible.
First, let's define some terms: In the most general sense, the Volt is a hybrid because it uses both gas and electricity. Chevrolet's insistence to the contrary is understandable, because after 10 years the word "hybrid" has come to mean one thing, and that is something the Volt is definitely not. There are many different types of hybrid, though — current and theoretical — and the Volt is one.
Its main distinction is that it doesn't operate like a hybrid for the first 40 miles, roughly, during which time it's a battery-electric vehicle with full power and quick acceleration to rival any modest gasoline or diesel car, and many of the low-volume and prototype battery-electric cars on the road today.
That's all pretty clear-cut. It's when the battery runs down all the way that the Volt changes into something else, and that's inarguably a type of hybrid: A four-cylinder engine turns on and drives a generator to produce enough electricity to keep the car moving. Technically this would be called a series hybrid, but it's complicated by the fact that all the components share a set of gears that are connected to the drive wheels and, under some circumstances, only in range-extending mode, the gas engine contributes to propelling the car. (See my post for more details.) Now, characteristics here recall conventional hybrids from Toyota and Ford. The difference is that the range-extending Volt is an electrically propelled car that occasionally gets an assist from the gas engine. The others are gas-powered vehicles that get an assist from electric motors, and they can't accelerate at maximum rate or drive full-speed on battery power for any miles, much less 40.
How about plug-in hybrids, examples of which will hit the market in a year or so? They'll improve trip mileage, but they're unlikely to change the Volt's distinction. Though the Prius plug-in, expected in 2012, will have more battery capacity and an electric-only range, it will be less than 15 miles of range, and it won't provide full-power acceleration without triggering the gas engine. In fact, the engine will start in the first 15 inches if you press hard enough on the accelerator. It will also be more expensive than the regular Prius, guaranteed.
Ultimately, it doesn't matter what the Volt is or how it works under the surface. What matters is how it works out in the real world — and at first blush, it works damn well.
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