Editor's note: This review was written in December 2015 for the all-new 2016 Chevrolet Volt. Nothing major has changed for 2017, but to see what's new, click here. Or to see a side-by-side comparison of the two model years, click here.
The standard practice of many Japanese automakers is to change popular models minimally from generation to generation. It may seem obvious, but "fix only what's broken" is not something American automakers often practice. Instead, they're fans of the "start over and change everything" school of thought.
That's why the 2016 Chevrolet Volt is a revelation: It's an obvious, serious refinement of the current model, a product of GM listening to customers and fixing only what was wrong while quietly improving what was already good (compare the 2015 and 2016 models here). The result is a new and improved Volt that looks, feels and performs better in almost every way.
Exterior & Styling
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 could be said about the old Volt was that it was an obvious product of the wind tunnel. The new car is one that will appeal to shoppers who are just seeking a stylish compact sedan, never mind the Volt's impressive electric abilities. You can tell Chevrolet stylists had more time to work on the Volt this time around, as it's far more attractive and much more conventional in its styling.
How It Drives
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 provided tons of feedback to the company about what needed to change (full disclosure: I personally lease a Gen 1 Volt). 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 that the Volt is now certified to go 53 miles on electricity alone (up from 38 miles for the 2015 model) before the new, larger 1.5-liter gasoline engine kicks in to keep it going up to 420 miles total. The combination of the gas engine and a redesigned, two-motor electric drive system has eliminated nearly 100 pounds from the powertrain alone. Factor in the lighter battery pack, and the whole car is 200 pounds lighter than the one it replaces.
The Volt feels different than it has in the past. The new electric motors have improved the zero-to-30-mph feel, giving the car a much more sprightly, agile feeling in everyday driving. It's still a heavy car despite being more than 200 pounds lighter, but it no longer feels like the hefty tank that the Gen 1 resembled (that's what dropping the equivalent of a constant passenger can do).
It's replaced by an experience that can best be described as "premium," thanks to the absolutely silent electric operation; the nicely weighted, well-balanced steering; and the smooth, well-damped ride. It's a far nicer experience than what you get in a 2015 Toyota Prius hybrid — no continuously variable automatic transmission drone, no whining motors. (We've yet to test the redesigned 2016 Prius.)
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 go 45 miles without a problem, and another driver on my program made a point to drive conservatively and achieved more than 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 do make a difference. The Volt always uses the vehicle's forward momentum to convert motion back into electricity. Putting the car in "L" makes this software more aggressive, so when you lift off the accelerator, you feel the car slow more dramatically rather than coasting along effortlessly. Tapping the regen button creates even more resistance, slowing the car even more aggressively and generating more juice in return. Over time, using the button instead of just tapping the brakes lets you recapture a lot of energy, since the car's electric motors can also act as generators.
Four driving modes are available. Normal feels like the Gen 1's Sport mode thanks to the new car's higher torque output and more aggressive tuning. The new Sport mode is even more aggressive, making it a little too jumpy in stop-and-go traffic. Mountain is for driving in conditions with long uphill grades, as it turns on the engine to add some reserve battery power so as not to have to rely solely on the engine's generating output to get you through the Rockies. Hold mode allows you to keep the battery charge wherever it's at when you push the button. That's 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 let the engine help power the car at highway speeds and save the all-electric power for in-town, lower-speed driving, where electric is the more efficient approach.
Once the car has run out of battery power, it makes use of the range-extending engine to achieve an average of 42 mpg in combined driving (up from 37 mpg previously). It's not quite what a Prius can get (50 mpg combined), but much better than a Ford C-Max Energi (38 mpg combined). Even better, the Volt now takes regular unleaded rather than premium gas.
By the time Cars.com sold its long-term 2011 Chevrolet Volt, one of the first models sold in the U.S., our editors unanimously cited its uneven braking and pedal feel as one of the car's worst aspects. The 2016 has proved controversial; some of our editors believe the new braking system is improved, some think it feels no different. As a Volt owner myself, I recognize some improvement in the system, but it remains one of the car's weakest links (second to poor outward visibility).
The Gen 1 Volt was nice inside, but its touch-sensitive control panel fell short. It looked cool at first, but using it was a pain; there seemed to be no organizational logic to how controls were arranged, and it was easy to accidentally activate something by brushing against the panel. 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 in a new car.
All the materials inside have been upgraded, with excellent cloth seats standard and optional leather ones. The resculpted seats feel bigger, and upgraded dashboard and console materials give the car a much more premium look and feel. There's decent room in front, even if visibility is still extremely compromised by the car's thick pillars.
That remains my biggest gripe with the Volt, 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, which helps rearward visibility. There's still no rear wiper option, though, which is odd for a car with such a flat glass hatch. At least the liftgate is lighter now, so it doesn't slam closed with a crash that makes you worry for the structure, like the Gen 1's did.
That fifth-place seat you've heard about in the rear? Forget about it. Even putting a child back there for a brief trip would be problematic, despite what Chevy says. For now it's easier to just accept that the Volt remains a four-seat car. That said, in the Gen 1 we found the tall center console in back interfered with child-safety-seat placement, so it's possible the new center "seat" will provide welcome spillover space. We'll report back once we've completed a Cars.com Car Seat Check.
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 orange.
Ergonomics & Electronics
The interior controls are simply fantastic. There's a new screen with updated graphics behind the steering wheel, and the center touch-screen is big, bright and easy to use. Frequently used functions 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. 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 that may have been a pre-production software issue.
Android Auto is coming as well, but not until the middle of 2016. Suffice it to say that the Volt is at least one generation of sophistication ahead of the 2015 Prius family in its multimedia systems. The latest upcoming Sync 3 system from Ford, however — which will find its way into the C-Max soon — gives it a good run for its money. But the Volt has Apple CarPlay and (soon) Android Auto, which gives it (and most other 2016 Chevrolets) an edge.
Cargo & Storage
Being a hatchback, the Volt has a decent amount of cargo room, even if it doesn't look like it. You'll be surprised what will fit back there given Chevrolet lists only 10.6 cubic feet of cargo space — the same as 2015 — and doesn't provide a figure for when the rear seats are folded, which makes the space quite large. It's easy to fit a few big suitcases or a large haul from Costco in the cargo area. The Prius Plug-In lists a more sizeable 21.6 cubic feet of cargo space, but it sure doesn't look like twice the room. Chalk this up to differing measuring techniques among automakers, as there is no standard for measuring cargo space in the industry.
This becomes apparent when we see the C-Max Energi listing 19.2 cubic feet of space despite its compromised cargo area (thanks to a larger lithium-ion battery for electric-only operation versus the regular C-Max, which is listed at 24.5 cubic feet).
The latest Volt has not yet been crash-tested by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration or the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (it's too new).
In addition to the new interior, fancy skin and upgraded 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. See a list of the Volt's standard features here.
Value in Its Class
The new 2016 Volt is an extremely impressive upgrade to what was already an enjoyable, if somewhat flawed, vehicle. With the changes, the Volt's premium feel and more conventional interior controls make it a much more enjoyable car to drive than the previous model, and a far more premium vehicle than the 2015 Toyota Prius.
Starting nearly $1,200 less than the 2015 Volt, it's more affordable, as well, with an LT trim featuring a base price of $33,995 (including destination fee). The better-equipped, leather-lined Premium trim starts at $38,345 and tops out around $44,000. This comes before the $7,500 federal income tax incentive, or any additional state and local incentives that can also shave thousands off the price. Be sure to explore leasing options, as well, as electric vehicles like the Volt tend to have very favorable subsidized leases.
Competition is still not entirely an apples-to-apples comparison, as no car on the market can do what the Volt does – drive 50-plus miles on electric power only and continue to more than 400 miles at 42 mpg before needing refueling. The 2015 Toyota Prius Plug-in offers only a paltry 11 miles of electric range before it operates as a hybrid again, at an estimated 50 mpg combined.
Likewise, the Ford C-Max Energi is also a plug-in hybrid with a larger battery, enabling it to go a claimed 20 miles on electric power only (though my experience with that vehicle saw it turn in far less than 20 miles). They're all priced within a few thousand dollars of each other, but the only other range-extended EV on the market costs significantly more: The BMW i3 is closest to the Volt in concept, but is a smaller, subcompact city car.
The i3 goes about 72 miles on electric power before a small BMW motorcycle engine kicks in to let it get about 80 more at 39 mpg combined, using premium gas. This limits the utility of the i3 as compared with the Volt, as taking it on an interstate journey would be difficult in some parts of the country. The i3 is also significantly more expensive, with the range-extended model starting at $47,245. Compare all four here.
Previous Volt owners will find good reason 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 even on its non-EV merits alone.