By Aaron Bragman on July 2, 2014
Cars.com owned one of the earliest Chevrolet Volts in the country for more than a year and experienced the highs and lows of ownership. I've had my own Bow-Tie brand plug-in for nearly two years, and I've routinely been one of our editors tapped to test newcomers to the electrified car segment from an electric Fiat to new plug-ins from BMW, Ford and Toyota.
Yet, the Volt remains a lightning rod in many ways ... pun slightly intended. Rumors suggest we're at least six months away from seeing a second-generation Chevrolet Volt and probably at least a year away from driving one. The question then becomes, is the Volt the best plug-in hybrid out there, or is one of the newcomers a better choice?
How Do They Work?
To consumers, plug-ins all work the same way. Plug the car into an outlet to get an initial run of battery-supplied, all-electric travel, which then switches to an on-board gasoline engine/generator to let you continue further.
However, the Volt is still unique in how it operates. It is always powered by the electric motor, with a gas generator kicking in to keep you moving. Only one new competitor does something technically similar: the new 2014 BMW i3 city car. The BMW carbon-fiber subcompact is electric, like the Volt, but it has an optional range-extending two-cylinder scooter engine that can keep the car going. Unlike the Volt, it only has a 2.4-gallon gas tank, good for about 60 miles once the 80 miles of battery range — more than twice that of the Volt's — is done. It is more of an electric car with an emergency backup.
Two other plug-in hybrid competitors are a bit closer to the Volt's real world use, but differ in that they also use their gas engines for propulsion, not simply electrical generation. The Toyota Prius Plug-In and Ford C-Max Energi both can be driven in electric-only mode (the Prius for about 11 miles, the C-Max Energi for 21 miles) before their gas engines kick in.
Which is Most Fun?
The Volt is about midpack in terms of driving fun, compared with the plug-in trio of competitors. The BMW i3 is the athlete of the bunch with snappy acceleration, tight handling and a firm, even unforgiving ride thanks to its ridiculously tall, skinny tires. The C-Max Energi, however, is tight, with its European heritage showing in its firm yet smooth and comfortable ride, excellent electric power steering and brakes that do not feel as artificial as those in the Volt. The Prius Plug-In drives like a Prius — numb, uninspiring and purely functional. It's actually a bit slower than the normal Prius in electric-only mode, which doesn't help it at all.
Which Goes Farther?
As for electric range, the Volt is midpack again. The i3 is rated around 80 miles and testing through the aggressive cut-and-thrust of Los Angeles traffic on a hot day proved that this is likely a conservative number. The Prius Plug-In's electric-only range is minimal - just 11 miles, but given the battery's small size, this is not surprising. The C-Max Energi says it gets 21 miles of average range on a full charge, but our own testing saw it get half that in conditions similar to the wintery weather we had for the Volt test. Chevrolet's conservative use of the Volt's battery pack means that it more reliably achieves its stated 38-mile range rating, in my experience.
Which Has the Nicest Interior?
The interior accommodations are where the Volt starts to suffer compared to the competition. The i3 is tiny compared to a Volt, but it's considerably taller, with far better visibility all around and a more spacious-feeling cockpit. It is letdown, however, by interior materials that are meant to seem "eco-friendly," but which instead come off as "eco-crappy," especially for the i3's price. The Prius Plug-In is identical to a normal Prius inside, which is to say it's a sea of gray plastic with a confusing central-mounted gauge cluster, but at least nothing is touch-sensitive in there. Again the best competitor is the C-Max Energi, which features a high-quality Ford interior with premium materials that you see in models shipped over from Europe. There's also plenty of headroom for occupants and far better outward visibility than the Volt as well. Plus, the Prius and C-Max Energi both accommodate five people, which is something the Volt just can't do.
Which Has the Best Electronics?
The BMW has a more sophisticated electronics suite than the Volt, with more functions for helping the driver maximize range (the navigation system, for example, can calculate a route that will expend the least amount of energy based not only on traffic but also topography). The Prius Plug-In could use an update to its multimedia systems, but the Ford also struggles a bit with the inclusion of the often-troublesome MyFord Touch system. While MyFord Touch has improved for the 2014 model year, the Chevrolet MyLink system is still easier to use while driving or stationary.
Which Has the Most Room?
Forget about hauling anything in an i3. With just 2.8 cubic feet of room behind the rear seats, any trip with more than two people will require a decision: Do you want to haul people or stuff, because you can't do both. The Prius Plug-In has decent room, with 21.6 cubic feet of room behind the rear seats, but that's all you get — those rear seats do not fold. The C-Max Energi is the clear winner for cargo room by the numbers, with 19.2 cubic feet of cargo space that expands to a cavernous 42.8 cubic feet the rear seats folded. It's a tall wagon, almost a mini-minivan, but it has a problem: it loses several inches of height in the cargo area thanks to additional batteries over the regular C-Max Hybrid. Bulky items like a child's bike do not fit well (as experienced by one of our own editors). The Volt lists just 10.6 cubic feet of room, but that's deceptive — fold the seats down and you have a lot more. Even if it's not perfectly flat, the Volt may accommodate bigger objects better than the C-Max Energi.
Which One Would I Pick Today?
The Volt is due for a refresh, but the current one is still impressive; the list of things that need to improve for the next model are clear, however. Better visibility, room for five and aerodynamics that let you lower a window above 35 mph without causing horrible cavitation in the cabin are on the top of my list.
The i3 is a style statement for sure; that Bimmer badge will count for a lot in style-conscious areas like Los Angeles, but it is limited in what it offers in range, flexibility and roominess. The Plug-in Prius is a no-brainer for a current Prius fan who wants to go just a little bit more eco-friendly, but the best competitor to the Volt is the C-Max Energi.
Its combination of comfort, features, sophistication and near-Volt-like electric car abilities make it an attractive alternative to the Volt, particularly for eco-friendly buyers with families. With the C-Max and the Volt almost evenly matched in my mind, which one I'd pick to own next might have to depend instead on which I can get for a better deal.
Cars.com photos by Evan Sears and Aaron D. Bragman; file photos; manufacturer images
Detroit Bureau Chief Aaron Bragman grew up in the Detroit area, comes from an automotive family and is based in Ann Arbor, Mich. Email Aaron