Although the Chevrolet Volt has received a big price cut, it still retains its novel extended-range electric car abilities — as well as its poor visibility, questionable touch-sensitive panels and cramped interior.
It's been a while since we got a close look at the Chevrolet Volt, General Motors' original plug-in hybrid electric car. It's a novel hatchback that debuted to mixed reviews from the press and public a few years ago, and in that time the Volt has received only a few minor updates — things like achieving another 3 miles of electric-only range due to deeper use of the lithium-ion batteries, a few new colors, a rear armrest for the backseat passengers — and not much else. The biggest news lately was a price drop for 2014, when Chevrolet slashed $5,000 off the car's sticker price to try to boost sales in the wake of new competition. The 2014 model is basically the same car GM introduced back for the 2011 model year; compare the 2013 and 2014 models here.
How It Drives
A quick refresher on how the Volt works: An electric drivetrain, consisting of a 16.5-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack and a 149-horsepower electric motor, is augmented by a 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine that acts primarily as a generator. When the Volt's batteries reach a certain state (not empty; the Volt's batteries are never truly "empty"), usually after an average of about 38 miles of driving, the gas engine kicks in to keep the batteries at a certain level and get you to the next charging station. It's actually far more complicated than this — GM's Voltec powertrain is an amazingly complex combined transmission-motor-generator unit. The result, however, is this: You get to drive 38 miles (the actual range depends on weather and driving style) before the gas engine kicks in to get you considerably further; the Volt's range is more than 300 miles in total. And as long as you keep filling the tank with premium gas, you can keep going, averaging about 37 mpg on that gas engine. The idea, though, is to try to get to a plug instead of another gas station, as driving the car on electricity is cheaper and more efficient.
We're happy to report that the Volt drives pretty much as the Volt always has. It's solid, it's heavy and it's planted. All that weight in the battery pack contributes to the impressive heft that comes through in a smooth ride, a well-damped suspension and vaultlike build quality. It also, however, comes with the penalty of less-than-athletic handling. The Volt rides like a luxury car but leans and pushes in turns as its low-rolling-resistance tires try to handle the changing momentum. The overly boosted electric power steering does nothing to improve the handling situation, as it is quite numb in terms of feel and feedback. Acceleration is surprisingly quick, especially when the car is in Sport mode, which remaps accelerator input to make for quicker response. It's one of the few Sport modes on the market that actually makes the car quicker when selected. The Volt is no sport sedan, but it's not trying to be; the Volt's mission is to maximize your efficiency, especially in electric mode. That means driving calmly and smoothly, with no rapid acceleration or aggressive moves. Drive it like a commuter car, not a race car, and the Volt feels docile, user-friendly and comfortable for front-seat occupants.
The reason to buy a Volt is fuel economy, and it performs as advertised. My time with the 2014 came in the middle of one of the coldest winters in Michigan history, however, which did affect my observed performance. Plugging the car in overnight will charge it from empty in about four hours on a 240-volt dedicated charger, or in eight to 10 hours on a standard household 120-volt outlet. If you keep to a routine, you can program the Volt to charge during the most economical electricity rate hours from your utility. Use remote start to warm the car up in the morning (or cool it down anytime) while still plugged in and you'll improve battery range because the car won't be using as much stored energy to make the cabin comfortable. In super-cold weather, the gas engine will run even if the battery is full to help get things warmer faster.
Given my subfreezing conditions, I did not achieve 38 miles of electric operation; the Volt typically went about 30 miles before battery depletion. This did include some highway driving, which will also bring down battery power more quickly. Operating on gasoline power, the Volt did indeed achieve about 36 mpg, as expected from its EPA gasoline rating of 35/40/37 mpg city/highway/combined. As with all electric cars, your mileage will vary; I was once able to go 52 miles on electricity only in a fully charged Volt in perfect conditions (warm weather, flat terrain, smooth operation and minimal stop and go). But I have also seen a Volt go 25 miles on electricity before switching on the gas engine — on a cold morning with the heat blasting while zipping down the highway at 75 mph. Suffice it to say that with normal use and operation (and barring extreme weather conditions), the Volt can easily achieve its advertised efficiency ratings.
Inside, the Volt's cabin hasn't changed since its introduction, aside from the elimination of a button that used to pop open the charge port door — that's now a hand-operated affair, but the separate fuel door remains powered, as that button also unseals and depressurizes the fuel system before popping the filler door. The center control panel is still completely touch-sensitive smooth plastic, aside from a few buttons to operate systems like the drive mode selector, system start, eco displays, door locks and radio volume. Few of our editors are fans of this panel, as it's too easy to accidentally select something by brushing your hand against it, and there doesn't seem to be much logic to the stack's layout. It may be cheaper and lighter, but it's not pleasant to use. Thankfully, other interior materials are quite nice, with a premium grain to the plastics and a quality feel to the optional leather seats. Aside from the center console, the Volt feels like an expensive car.
At least the cabin is quiet — as long as you're not on the highway, sitting in back or have any windows open. The Volt's aerodynamics are so critical to its efficiency that opening any window and disturbing the airflow at speeds above 35 mph leads to horrible, throbbing cavitation in the passenger space. Chevy would rather you keep the windows up and use the climate control system to keep the cabin at the temperature you prefer. Road noise up front is very nicely muted, but once you're at highway speeds the lack of a barrier between the cargo area and occupant space leads to strained conversations between front and backseat passengers. I've found that putting down a thick rubber mat — available from GM's parts catalog — in the cargo area does tend to help. Noises also tend to stand out because there's often no engine noise to mask anything. Once the gas engine does kick on, either because the batteries are depleted or because you've selected one of the Volt's four modes that keep the batteries charged to a certain level (Hold and Mountain do this), the cabin gets a bit louder, but not much. It's still muted and comfortable, and you quickly get used to the fact that the engine noise is not connected to your right foot's position on the accelerator pedal.
Our complaints with previous Volts haven't changed with this latest one. The brakes feel artificial and insufficiently strong, as if they're not directly connected to the pedal you're pushing but to some computer that determines (inaccurately) exactly how much braking force should be applied. You do get used to them, but there's room for improvement here. Visibility is atrocious, with huge thick windshield pillars making it feel like you're driving the car backward and looking out a rear window. Actual rear visibility isn't any better, with more thick pillars and an awkward split-window hatchback design that bifurcates the view behind you. Reversing and parallel parking are challenging, especially if you don't have a Volt with the optional backup camera and parking sensors. The backseat is cramped and accommodates only two occupants thanks to the battery stack that runs between and under the rear seats — and dimensions that weren't all that spacious to begin with. Legroom for rear passengers is tight as well. The Volt is best considered a two-seat car for most use, with the ability to accommodate two more in a pinch.
Ergonomics & Electronics
The multimedia system in the Volt is Chevrolet's latest MyLink package, and it's one of the better systems on the market. Clear and easy to use, the touch-screen in the Volt displays audio and vehicle system information but sometimes has issues syncing up with mobile devices using the USB port. Reliably connecting an iPhone 5 to it to play music was a challenge.
A second display takes the place of traditional gauges and provides a significant amount of reconfigurable information about what the vehicle is doing, how it's performing, charge status and even an easy-to-use meter to help you modify your driving style to maximize efficiency. A few years into the Volt's first iteration, the graphics and displays still feel modern and up to date, a testament to how truly new and state of the art they were when the Volt was introduced. The Volt was one of the first vehicles to also truly integrate remote smartphone-app operation. Through a dedicated OnStar app, you can check the car's charge level, set it to charge immediately, see how efficient it's been, unlock the doors and even honk the horn.
Cargo & Storage
Despite the cramped occupant space, the Volt can swallow a surprising amount of stuff thanks to its hatchback configuration. Chevrolet lists trunk volume at 10.6 cubic feet (which isn't much; a Nissan Leaf has 24 cubic feet of trunk space with the seats still up), but when the rear seats are folded the Volt can accommodate long items without a problem. There's plenty of room for a trip to the building supply store or warehouse club, so long as it's just you and a friend doing the shopping.
The Volt received some negative press upon its introduction when one caught fire after being crash-tested, but that isolated incident proved an unusual case that had much more to do with the government improperly storing a crashed electric car than with a design issue with the Volt. Since then there haven't been any incidents like it, and the Volt has been relatively trouble free. In fact, the Volt has a five-star safety rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, with the only questionable test being the rear side pole barrier impact test. Similarly, the Volt earned the top rating of good in all tests to which it was subjected by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. See all the Volt's crash-test results here.
The Volt can also be had with all the latest electronic safety advancements, like front and rear park assist, forward collision warning and lane departure warning. As with all GM vehicles, OnStar monitoring service, which can automatically notify emergency responders in case of a collision, is included for a trial period. See a list of the Volt's equipment here.
Value in Its Class
Thanks to increasing competition, the Volt has seen its price drop by a significant amount since its introduction. The new base price for a 2014 Chevrolet Volt is $34,995 including destination charge, which is a decline of $5,000 from the 2013 model. That's still more than you'd pay for many other plug-in hybrid cars on the market, but none of them offer the level of electric-only operating range that the Volt does. My test car was loaded up with the Premium Trim Package, two safety packages, navigation, a Bose premium audio system, black 17-inch wheels and white diamond paint for a grand total of $40,640. That's a lot of money for a car as small as the Volt, but the car's abilities and novel electric operation mean that, for some people, the ability to drive it while only rarely filling it with gas makes its operation significantly less expensive than a comparable gas car. Option one up your way here.
Competitors are more numerous these days than they were just a couple of years ago. From a function and space standpoint, the new BMW i3 offers many of the functions of the Volt — most notably an all-electric drivetrain that can be augmented by a gasoline range extender. Its electric range is significantly longer, at roughly 80 miles, but its engine is a two-cylinder BMW scooter engine, and there can be only enough gas in the car's tiny tank to go another 60 miles after the car's electric range is depleted. That's enough to get you around town, but likely not to the nearest big city. It's also considerably more expensive than the Volt; the i3 starts at $42,275 but can quickly climb north of that if you start specifying nicer interior materials and fancy entertainment options.
Closer in function are the Toyota Prius Plug-In and the Ford C-Max Energi. Both are primarily gasoline-based vehicles, with engines that are meant to provide power and motive force to the cars, but both can travel a limited distance on pure electric power as well. Of these two, the Ford is the more advanced powertrain from an electric-operation standpoint — it goes twice as far on electric power, using a battery that's almost double the capacity of the Toyota's. It's also taller and roomier than the Toyota, with the ability to carry far more cargo thanks to its folding second row of seats. The Toyota comes out ahead on fuel economy, however, averaging 51 mpg on the highway to the Ford's 40 mpg. The Toyota starts at $30,800 while the Ford begins at $33,745, so both have a price edge over the Volt, but neither can approach the Volt's electric-only operating ability, meaning you'll be spending more in gasoline to use either one. Compare all four competitors' stats and abilities here.
Despite the arrival of these competitors, the Volt still largely stands alone in what it can do — operate almost 100 percent of the time without running its gas engine, with enough range to get the average commuter to and from work on a single charge, but also allow that owner to make long-distance drives when necessary. For some people, it's the perfect everyday car for just those reasons alone. Once Chevrolet addresses the car's most obvious shortcomings — like abysmal visibility, seating for only four and a price that's still too high — its appeal is likely to grow beyond just the commuter customer.