New Car Reviews

2011 Chevrolet Volt

Now that the much-anticipated and much-discussed Chevy Volt is finally out and about in the real world (on sale in seven states currently, and available in all 50 by the end of the year), we can get a better idea of what it’s really like to live with. I recently did just that, taking home a Volt for a four-day weekend. Conclusion? The Volt works, but whether it works for you depends on how you interact with it — and that’s more so the case here than with any other car, due to the Volt’s two methods of refueling.

Step inside
The Volt’s exterior form is by now well familiar. Inside is a mix of mod and basic. The seats are not bad but adjustments are rudimentary. Outward visibility suffers due to fat A- and B-pillars, typical for a General Motors car. Up front, the cabin is interesting-looking, with lots of body-colored trim inside. But the back-seat riders are definitely second-class citizens, their door panels are molded hard plastic, and both headroom and legroom are at a premium. The rear seatbacks are two individual units with a space in between (a la Volvo C30), and that combined with the lack of a package shelf does open up the rear-seat area to light coming in through the huge hatch glass. The downside is that stuff in the cargo hold is not hidden from passersby.

The dash has two large, high-resolution displays and there’s an animated start-up greeting — which should wow the iPhone generation. The flat buttons on the sleek center stack look cool but demand more attention than old-school switches and knobs. The radio/navigation logic is quite good, only the nav’s zoom function could be easier to find.

Peppier than a Prius
A futuristic “whoosh” greets you when you hit the blue, pulsing Power button, and again when you shut the car down. The torque of the big electric motor makes the Volt peppier than a Toyota Prius or a Honda Insight. (A selectable sport mode quickens throttle response even further.) The chassis is relatively firm. Bumps are well managed but the suspension could use more rebound damping at the rear. The electric power steering is quite good with natural efforts. The regenerative brakes feel normal most of the time, but become more difficult to modulate during harder stops.

Switching between the drive modes is seamless, with no chug or shudder when the gasoline engine comes to life. The gasoline engine is very quiet, perhaps because it’s so low revving (it tops out at 4800 rpm); it doesn’t need to rev very high because it’s primarily recharging the battery, not powering the wheels. Even when in gasoline mode, the Volt works sort-of like a hybrid, shutting down the engine at very low speeds. Because the car in EV mode is so silent, flashing the high beams will also get you a soft bleat of the horn, for use when warning pedestrians of your presence (rather than blasting them with the regular horn).

Mileage and range
When I picked the car up, it was running on stored battery energy, and indicated 27 miles of range. I made it almost all the way home under electric power, but the battery ran out after 24 miles (the driving was mostly at moderate highway speeds, with lots of hills). Indicated range is a guessing game, as a car can’t know how it’s going to be driven in the miles ahead, but the Volt was able to predict far more accurately than the Nissan Leaf I had recently.

After running down the battery getting the car home, I plugged it in for an overnight recharge. (A full recharge using household current takes about 10 hours.) The outlet is behind a fuel-filler-style flap on the left front fender, and the extension cord stores in a cubby under the cargo floor. Plug it in, and a light on the top of the dash glows green to let you know charging is taking place. When the battery is topped off, the green light flashes.

The next morning with a full battery, the car showed an available 36 miles of range. In fact, it wasn’t until I’d driven 41 miles (most of it around town) that the gasoline engine fired up to keep the battery pack from running down any further. The only sign that that happened, by the way, was that the instrument screen changed from showing the battery indicator counting down the EV range to a gas pump graphic showing 295 miles of estimated fuel range (from the small, 8-gallon tank).

I drove the car for the rest of the weekend without plugging it in again. I ended up doing 253 miles in total, using 5.8 gallons — plus the one battery charge — for a total of 43.5 mpg. The car indicated 102 miles of (gasoline) range remaining when it left my driveway.

The mix of driving I did was about 75 percent highway, mostly around 65 mph but with lots of hills. The around town stuff was also very hilly. We helped the car out by not running the A/C, an easy assist given the beautiful spring weather. Given all that, the 43.5-mpg average is not spectacular. (The Volt’s EPA estimates are 35 mpg city, 40 mpg highway.) A Toyota Prius could probably do better; so might a VW Golf TDI. Either would be considerably cheaper.

The takeaway
Clearly, if you’re not going to plug in the Volt regularly, you’re far better off to buy a Chevy Cruze (or most any other traditional compact) and bank the extra $10k. And as a plug-in EV, the Volt’s range is less than that of the considerably less expensive Nissan Leaf. So then, what’s the point? What the Volt offers is flexibility. Whereas a pure EV like the Leaf might be a family’s third car, used exclusively for commuting or short trips around town, the Volt could be a second or even an only car. It’s the commuter car that can also go out of town. The Volt can be driven as a pure electric car but it’s far more versatile than one, because you can use it even if there might not be enough battery power to get where you’re going and back home again. So it’s less likely to be left in the garage and more likely to be out on the road.

Whereas a pure EV is a very purpose-specific car, the Volt can cover a much wider spectrum of use. The only area where it really doesn’t make much sense — although it could still be used — is for long-distance driving. Run it most of the time on gasoline, and the Volt seems silly. The higher the portion of EV driving, the more compelling the Volt becomes. Chevrolet’s car of the future can return fuel economy as low as 35 mpg — or, with frequent recharging, it can never use any gasoline at all. Your mileage may vary, indeed.

2011 Chevrolet Volt

Base price: $41,000
Price as tested: $43,390
[Federal tax incentives can reduce the price for some buyers by $7500]

Standard equipment:
Lithium-ion battery, electric drive unit
1.4-liter four-cylinder range-extender engine
Automatic transmission
Antilock brakes
Four-wheel disc brakes
Stability control
Automatic air-conditioning
Power mirrors, windows, door locks
Keyless entry + ignition
Remote start
Navigation with traffic and weather
Bose audio system with 30gb hard drive, XM satellite radio, auxiliary input jack, USB port, and steering-wheel controls
Tilt and telescoping steering column

Options on this vehicle:
Premium trim package
– leather-appointed seating
– premium door trim
– heated front seats
– leather-wrapped steering wheel

Viridian joule tricoat

Options not on this vehicle:
Rear camera and park assist package

Fuel economy:
35/40/37 mpg (city/highway/combined)
36 kW-hrs per 100 miles

1.4L I-4
Horsepower: 84 hp @ 4800 rpm
16 kW lithium-ion battery
111 kW electric motor
Horsepower: 149 hp
Torque: 273 lb-ft



Curb weight:
3780 lb (est.)

Goodyear Assurance 215/65R17

Nissan Leaf, Toyota Prius, Honda Insight, Volkswagen Golf TDI

What’s new?
All-new model