It’s always interesting getting behind the wheel of an Automobile of the Year award winner several months after we deliver the trophy. I did not vote for the Chevy Volt as our AOY last year. I found the Volt to be too gimmicky, but I do fully support the Technology of the Year award going to electric propulsion.
This Chevy fails a lot of simple human-machine interface tasks because the center stack’s controls are capacitive-touch and poorly organized. Eric Tingwall has already written a great blog post about the Volt’s awkward controls, so I’ll just offer a link to that rant instead of repeating it here. If Chevy offered a Volt with an interior that worked as well as the one in the Cruze, I’d be very happy with that. Save all the technological wizardry for the powertrain, and go with conventional HVAC and stereo controls; it’s less distracting for the driver to have physical buttons and dials.
What I do really like about the Volt is that it makes it easy for Americans to start the slow process of cutting back on our national petroleum addiction. Although I think the range anxiety issue is overstated, Chevy does address it by allowing the car to burn gasoline as a means of generating electricity between plug-in charges. This isn’t the most efficient way to produce electricity, so the mpg figure that’s kicked around for the car seems not so great when compared to a Toyota Prius or other “traditional” hybrids. But if you plug in often, it’s very possible to achieve 100+ mpg in the Volt.
The real issue that stands in the way of Americans reducing petroleum usage is that we’re too concerned with having more capability than we actually need. This is why so many half-ton trucks are rated at 10,000-plus pound towing capacities and empty-nest couples live in five-bedroom homes. We’re used to having more than we need. Perhaps when real owners start driving their Volts they’ll find that the car’s just-in-case internal combustion engine isn’t really needed very often.
An electric vehicle might not be ideal for everyone, but there are very few people who wouldn’t be able to use a Volt and start realizing the benefits of an EV immediately.
Phil Floraday, Senior Web Editor
I voted wholeheartedly for the Volt as AOY, and I still feel good about that decision six months later. With a Leaf and a Volt both recently in the office, it’s interesting to take another look at the pros and cons of each. The fact that my wife wants to replace her aging minivan with something smaller and dramatically more efficient makes this even more personally relevant. I have to look hard at how each car would fit into our lives and how it would meet her needs.
I must say that the exterior styling of the Volt has grown on me, and I’m always in favor of the utility of a four-door hatchback. The interior, while over-stylized, is pleasant enough. I thought much of the criticism of it among the staff last fall was unduly harsh. This example’s two-tone black and champagne color scheme is more appealing than the white console and funky patterned door inserts in our previous Volt. There’s decent passenger space all around, and the seats are comfortable. Visibility is not great, and my wife felt a bit claustrophobic with the high sills and center tunnel.
On the road, the Volt is exactly like any other compact passenger car. The regenerative brakes are probably the sole element most drivers will need to adjust to. The handling is not bad. The negative of the low-rolling resistance tires is countered by the car’s near total lack of body roll. The transition from electric to gas-assisted power is seamless and nearly undetectable, and on most drives it wouldn’t even occur. The fact that one can get all the way through a day of running around without plugging in or fear of being stranded is a terrific advantage for the Volt over the Leaf. With some forethought and planning, one could use as little gas in a Volt as in a Leaf most days, but still be able to drive out of town when required. As poor a tagline as I think it is, the Volt is, in fact, more car than electric.
My issues with the Volt are primarily subjective and stem from the car’s styling — but function comes into play as a result…
First, I’ll jump on the bandwagon and register my complaints about the center stack. The big problem with the stack is the tiny touch buttons are widely spaced across an acre of glossy painted plastic. And that glossy finish makes the small control labels difficult to read. Until one memorizes the location of the controls this thing is an ergonomic nightmare, and even then makes use while driving more challenging and dangerous than it should be. To be fair, the Volt is not alone in this: more and more cars are ditching knobs and pushbuttons in favor of touch screens and layered control menus.
Next, the fact that this car lacks three-across seating in back makes it less than ideal for our use. A family of four likes the option to add a bonus passenger on occasion, and that person will usually be a kid, riding along for a short distance. Even the most rudimentary third seating position would be better than a rear console.
The other problem I have with this car’s interior is the melding of passenger and cargo areas. The twin bucket seats in back are inexplicably left wide open to the cargo area. There’s no cargo cover, and there is a sizeable gap between the seats for a clear visual and physical path to the trunk. This means the miscellany that resides in the back of most family cars (stroller, bags of Target returns, et cetera) are right there junking up the interior of the car every day. To make matters worse, this isn’t just a visual issue, but a safety one. There is no means to restrain anything in the hatch from nailing passengers in the head in a panic stop or an accident. The bonus of having a hatchback is tempered by this layout. I don’t want a trunk, but I want a more clear separation from my baggage.
(UPDATE: Chevy offers a $99 “Rear Seat Storage Organizer/Barrier” that closes the gap between the seats. No details on a cover for the cargo area on the web site.)
All of those flaws are absent on the Leaf — and that’s significant. But the reality is that the Leaf and its limited range won’t work for us. There’s just no way to sufficiently consolidate all the trips and conserve driving range effectively with two kids and all the activities and demands involved. Range anxiety with the Leaf is genuine, and justified. The unpredictability of the range, coupled with the scarcity of charging stations and length of time to recharge are serious hurdles. For most Americans I suspect the Volt would be an easier transition from gas-guzzling as well. The Leaf is more of an urban commuter with serious limitations, while the Volt has the capability to step in and be a somewhat flawed, but effective, everyday vehicle.
Matt Tierney, Art Director
My goal for my time with the Volt was to spend the entire weekend using only its electric battery for power. I got off to a good start. On the drive home on Friday night, traffic was incredibly slow – it took me 45 minutes to drive only 12 miles — but because of that, I only used about 6 or 7 miles of range from the fully charged battery. Whenever I had an errand to run for the rest of the weekend, I consolidated it with other trips in order to avoid any unnecessary driving. I’m happy to say that I did reach my goal, and it actually wasn’t that difficult. What’s nice about the Volt is that you really can drastically cut down on your consumption of gasoline by planning ahead, but if you need to take a longish trip you don’t need to worry that you’re going to run out of juice before you get to your destination.
When the production version of the Volt was first revealed, several people lamented that its exterior styling was too conservative, especially compared with the concept car, but I actually think it looks OK — a little conservative, perhaps, but very much in line with the rest of the Chevrolet family. The interior, as Matt Tierney noted, is much nicer in this car’s black-and-champagne theme than the last Volt we drove, which had a white center console and oddly patterned door inserts. My main complaint with the center console is the lack of haptic feedback of the controls. Rather than dials or toggle switches or any other devices that you can actually manipulate with your hands and operate by feel, the console operation is similar to that of a touchscreen. It may look modern, but it doesn’t work in everyday use, as it forces you to take your eyes off the road whenever you want to adjust the climate control or the stereo.
Amy Skogstrom, Managing Editor
The Volt overdoes it with the gimmicks. As soon as I slipped behind the wheel and attempted to do anything involving the infotainment system, I understood exactly what Eric Tingwall was griping about. While the center stack looks clean and cool, the buttons on it are not very well organized. The brakes are non-linear, making it hard to come to a smooth stop. The point between regenerative and friction braking is a bit jarring, and I was never fully able to finesse it without feeling like I was going from lightly applying the brakes to hitting them hard. This was a common problem with many of the early regenerative-braking systems, but I wouldn’t consider this technology so new anymore.
Otherwise, the Volt is a completely competent car. Just as with many of the other high-beltline cars that have been in vogue in the past decade or so, visibility is only okay and getting a clear sense of the car’s size is not something quickly done. On the other hand, the Volt’s steering is very well-weighted.
The thing is, the Volt is not a normal car; it is a car that makes us rethink how we drive. The fact that my gripes with the Volt are reasonably minor proves just how good the Volt is. It’s not a normal car, but it drives like one; that is a mark of the car’s success in introducing new technology to the masses.
Donny Nordlicht, Associate Web Editor
I didn’t vote for the Chevrolet Volt as our Automobile of the Year, but after getting into this car several more times in the past six months, I’d like to change my ballot. At the time, I was caught up on the Volt’s many shortcomings: the center stack is a confusing mess, the interior is pretty cheap, and the ride quality is good but not great. But with more seat time, those niggling quirks have faded while the Volt’s clever powertrain remains brilliant. The concept of 35 miles of electric range backed by a gas engine is perfect for weaning drivers off petroleum while remaining a practical only car. On top of that, the Volt is smooth, quiet, and spirited. This is a car that’s about changing lifestyles, daily routines, and firmly established beliefs, and it makes this experience exciting, fun, and interesting with every mile driven. It’s a car that’s so important and so novel, that you can’t help but feel a bit smug.
Eric Tingwall, Associate Editor
My weekend with the Chevrolet Volt was entirely uneventful, because the Volt works just like a regular gasoline-powered car. I drove all over town — to the airport, to dinner, to Whole Foods, to the pool — without once suffering the dreaded “range anxiety” that afflicts drivers of other electric cars.
As Mr. Tierney and Mr. Nordlicht note, the Volt’s brake pedal at first doesn’t seem to decelerate the car at all, then engages the brakes so unexpectedly as to produce unintentional panic-stops. I quickly acclimated to the pedal after driving the Volt about two blocks.
I’m amazed at just how quiet the Volt is, whether running on electricity or gasoline, and even at over 70 mph on the highway. Otherwise, the driving experience is remarkably similar to that of other modern compact sedans.
The unique shape — no doubt abetted by General Motors’s marketing blitz — means the Volt attracts plenty of attention. Pedestrians at a downtown intersection pointed and gawked at “that electric car,” a cyclist slowed down in the bike lane to stare, and my neighbors asked questions like, “Does it need gas?” The last car I drove that garnered this much attention was a bright-red Lotus Elise.
I have but a few gripes with the Volt. I’ll agree with everyone else who says the center stack needs a redesign. The button labels are hard to read, and their layout is confusing. The buttons also became totally unresponsive for about 20 minutes after a lunch stop, but that may have been just a fluke. I really wish there was rear seating for three, and a divider between the cabin and cargo area should come standard. Finally, the wind-cheating front air dam is so low that it’s easy to scrape on speed bumps, and I fear it might be torn off in an automated car wash.
Overall, though, I was so impressed by the Volt that, if I were in the market for a new sedan, I would strongly consider leasing one.
Jake Holmes, Associate Web Editor
When I hopped into the Volt for my 22-mile commute home, it had only ten miles of indicated range remaining. Thanks to the range-extender engine, though, I wasn’t stranded, and I used, according to the trip computer, 0.43 gallons during my time with the car, which also reported an awesome average of 112 miles per gallon of gasoline. I did experience a bit of unexpected range anxiety, however, when the instrument panel flashed the warning “engine unavailable” just after the battery power became depleted. Fortunately, that foreboding message disappeared after I pulled over and restarted the car. (The check-engine light did say on, though.)
This Volt looks good in red (as opposed to the silver that seems to be on every other Volt), and the black center stack looks a lot better than the white that Chevy also offers. The car drives well — not great — but is fun to hustle through corners. Throttle response is peppy, too. There’s not a lot of room in the back seats, but I do like the way that area smoothly flows into the cargo area.
Driving a Volt is like driving a conventional car because, unlike in a full electric car, you don’t have to worry about getting stranded; you can fire up the accessories and HVAC as you want. This is definitely the right electric car for most Americans.
Rusty Blackwell, Copy Editor
Base price (with destination): $41,000
Price as tested: $43,485
Lithium Ion battery propulsion
Voltec electric drive unit
1.4-liter 4-cylinder generator
4-wheel disc brakes with ABS
Stabilitrak stability control
Remote keyless entry with push-button start
Power door locks/windows/mirrors
Tire pressure monitoring system
17-inch forged wheels
30 GB audio hard drive
Navigation system with DVD Rom
XM satellite radio
Auxiliary/USB audio input jack
Auto-dimming rearview mirror
Tilt/telescoping steering column
Steering wheel-mounted radio controls
40/40-split fold rear seats
Bose premium audio system
120V portable charge cord
Options on this vehicle:
Premium trim package — $1395
Leather appointed seating
Premium door trim
Heated front seats
Leather-wrapped steering wheel
17-inch forged polished wheels — $595
Crystal red metallic exterior paint — $495
Key options not on vehicle:
Rear camera and park assist package — $695
Gasoline only: 37 mpg
All electric: 93 mpg
1.4L I-4 range extender
Horsepower: 83 hp
Electric motor: 150 hp
Total system power:
Horsepower: 150 hp
Torque: 273 lb-ft
Curb weight: 3781 lb
Wheels/tires: 17-inch forged wheels
215/55R17 Michelin Assurance Fuel Max all-season tires