NEWS

2016 Chevrolet Volt: First Drive

16Chevrolet_Volt_AB_01.jpg 2016 Chevrolet Volt; | Cars.com photo by Aaron Bragman

The standard practice of many Japanese automakers is to change popular models minimally from generation to generation. Instead, they focus on continuous improvement. It may seem obvious, but “fix what’s broken” is not something American automakers often practice. Instead, they’re a fan of the “start over and change everything” school of thought.

Related: 2016 Chevrolet Volt: First Look

The 2016 Chevrolet Volt is a revelation: It’s an obvious, serious refinement of the current model, a product of General Motors listening to customers and fixing only what’s wrong, while quietly improving what’s already good. The result is a new and improved Volt that looks, feels and performs better in almost every way.

Yes, It Looks like a Honda

 

16Chevrolet_Volt_AB_03.jpg 2016 Chevrolet Volt; | Cars.com photo by Aaron Bragman

 

If you see a new Volt on the street and think it’s a Honda, you’ll be forgiven. From the low, pointed front end to the much bigger taillights and the side window trim that connects them, the new Volt looks more like a modern Honda Civic or FCX Clarity fuel-cell car than it looks like its old self. This is not a bad thing; the best thing that can be said about the old Volt is it was an obvious product of the wind tunnel. The new car is one that would appeal to shoppers who’re just seeking a stylish compact sedan, never mind the Volt’s electric abilities. You can tell Chevrolet stylists have had more time to work on the Volt this time around, as it’s far more attractive and much more conventional in its styling.

Further on Juice Alone

 

16Chevrolet_Volt_AB_12.jpg 2016 Chevrolet Volt; | Cars.com photo by Aaron Bragman

 

Unlike the “Gen 1” Volt, for which Chevrolet had to guess what customers wanted in a range-extended electric car, the “Gen 2” model has 80,000 vocal owners who have provided massive feedback to the company about what needed to change for the new model (I personally lease a Gen 1 Volt, in fact). First among them was range — and Chevy delivered. The company redesigned the lithium-ion battery pack to eliminate more than 30 percent of the battery cells, but increased the pack’s capacity overall. The result is the Volt is now certified to go 53 miles on electricity alone, before the new, larger 1.5-liter gasoline engine kicks in to keep it going up to 420 miles in total.

The Volt feels different than it has in the past — a new electric drive unit uses motors that have improved the zero to 30 mph feel, giving the car a much more sprightly, agile feeling in everyday driving. Despite being more than 200 pounds lighter, it’s still a heavy car, but it no longer feels like the hefty tank that the Gen 1 resembled (that’s what dropping the mass equivalent of a constant passenger can do). It’s replaced by an experience that can be best described as “premium,” thanks to the absolutely silent electric operation; nicely weighted, well-balanced steering; and smooth, well-damped ride. It’s a far nicer experience than what’s provided by the Toyota Prius — no continuously variable automatic transmission drone, no whining motors. The new Volt is quiet, calm and surprisingly quick.

Getting that 53 miles of range is not going to be difficult, either. In aggressive driving through the Marin Headlands north of San Francisco, I managed to get 45 miles without a problem, and another driver on my program made a point to drive conservatively and achieved 60 miles on electric power. Using the new “regen” button on the back of the steering wheel and keeping the transmission in “L” for more aggressive use of regenerative braking make a difference. Using the button to slow the car instead of tapping the brakes lets you recapture a lot of energy over time.

Four driving modes are available. Normalfeels like the Gen 1’s Sport mode, with the new car’s higher torque output and more aggressive tuning. The new Sport mode is aggressive and a little too jumpy in stop-and-go traffic. Mountain is for driving in conditions with long uphill grades, as it keeps some battery power in reserve as you deplete it so as not to have to rely solely on the engine’s output to get you through the Rockies. And Hold mode allows you to keep the battery charge at whatever level it’s at when you push the button — useful if you know you’ve got a long highway stretch in between periods of around-town driving. In such conditions, the Volt is more efficient if you just let the engine help power the car at highway speeds, getting about 45 mpg in observed fuel economy (now on regular unleaded gasoline rather than premium), and keep the all-electric power for in-town, lower speed driving, where electric is the more efficient approach.

Upgraded, Outside and In

 

16Chevrolet_Volt_AB_14.jpg 2016 Chevrolet Volt; | Cars.com photo by Aaron Bragman

 

The Gen 1 Volt was nice inside, but its intention to convey its high-tech nature through the use of a touch-sensitive control panel fell short. It looked cool, but using it was a pain; there seemed to be no organizational logic to how controls were arranged, and accidentally activating something by brushing against the panel was a frequent occurrence. The Gen 2 Volt completely rethinks the interior, and the result is perhaps the best mixture of touch-screen tech and dedicated buttons I’ve yet seen on a new car.

All the materials inside have been upgraded, as have the displays — a new screen with updated graphics is behind the steering wheel, and the center touch-screen is big, bright and easy to use. Functions you use often are controlled by dedicated knobs and switches (are you paying attention, Honda?), while the deeper functions can easily be found using the latest version of Chevy MyLink.

 

16Chevrolet_Volt_AB_23.jpg 2016 Chevrolet Volt; | Cars.com photo by Aaron Bragman

 

Apple CarPlay is standard and works well most of the time — our version crashed a couple of times while playing music over a USB cord from an iPhone 6S Plus, but this may be a pre-production software issue. The new seats are comfortable and covered in high-quality leather or fabric. That fifth-place seat you’ve heard about in the rear? Yeah, just forget about that. Even putting a child back there for a brief trip would be problematic. It’s easier to just accept that the Volt remains a four-seat car, due to its battery design. Interior colors also feed the premium feel of the Volt, with a two-tone black-and-tan option that’s dramatic, if a bit too orangey.

My biggest gripe with the Volt remains visibility outward, but it isn’t something Chevrolet can change without a major rethink of the car. The previous generation’s bisected rear window has been revised into a single, deeper glass panel out back, which helps rearward visibility — but there’s still no rear wiper option, which is odd for a car with such a flat glass hatch. At least the liftgate is lighter now and doesn’t slam closed with a crash that makes you worry for the structure, like the Gen 1’s did.

In addition to the new interior, fancy skin and upgraded electric technology, Chevy has added some additional safety features too. Automatic lane keep assist, lane departure warning, blind spot monitor with rear cross-traffic alert, forward collision alert with autonomous braking, and automatic parallel parking are optional. All of it works seamlessly and unobtrusively.

The new 2016 Volt is an extremely impressive upgrade to what was already an enjoyable, if somewhat flawed vehicle. With the changes Chevy has made to the new model, the Volt’s premium feel and more conventional interior controls make it a far more enjoyable car to drive than a Toyota Prius and a better-looking one than a Nissan Leaf. Starting nearly $1,200 less than the 2015 model, it’s more affordable as well. Previous Volt owners will find good reasons to upgrade to the new model, and potential customers who hadn’t really considered an EV will find in the new Volt a car that will please them on its non-EV merits alone.

Latest expert reviews