Our 2011 Automobile of the Year didn't earn a spot on our 2012 All-Stars list, but the Chevy Volt's powertrain is still a massively impressive piece of engineering. The Volt's key trick is a seamless transition between running on electricity and gasoline. The gas/electric drivetrain allows for roughly 35 miles of driving range using electricity stored in a large lithium-ion battery before firing up a small, four-cylinder gas engine for another 300 miles of range. The dual power sources offer all of the incentives of driving an electric vehicle -- charging at home, cheap energy, and the potential for reduced emissions -- while eliminating the inconvenience of limited range and slow charging times that afflict pure electric vehicles.
Like the Nissan Leaf, the Volt is a bit optimistic in predicting electric range, especially when you're driving outside of the city and using the climate system. While the Volt initially promised a range of 34 gas-free miles when I left the office one night, it delivered about two-thirds of that. That's significantly less distance than Chevrolet's original target with the Volt: empowering Americans to make a 40-mile round-trip commute without using a drop gas. That's not a failing of Chevrolet engineering (maybe marketing, though), but a telling sign of the infancy of battery technology. As batteries become more energy dense and programmers learn how to use that energy more efficiently, the Volt's range-extended electric vehicle concept will be even more compelling.
The interior design has grown on me and the ride quality is quite good -- much better than I remember. The radio, navigation, and climate controls, which prioritize an unconvincing futuristic look over functionality, are still the Volt's biggest shortcoming. For a car packing a revolutionary, unproven powertrain, you'd be right to interpret that as a twisted kind of praise.
Eric Tingwall, Associate Editor
The Volt is quite impressive in just how normal of a car it is, given the advanced technology that hides beneath the sheetmetal. However, I was surprised at how coarse sounding and noisy the "range extender" (gas-powered engine) is once the electric battery is depleted. Blame goes to the transmission that - because of its infinite amount of ratios - keeps the engine running a high revs when under load on the highway; the Cruze uses the same engine but doesn't sound nearly as bad thanks to its six-speed transmissions. Noisy engine aside, I was impressed that I was able to do all 40-plus-miles worth of errands without having the gas engine kick in at all and, most importantly, without any kind of range anxiety.
Donny Nordlicht, Associate Web Editor
I would honestly consider plunking down money to buy a Chevrolet Volt. It drives and feels just like any other car, yet allows for near-silent motoring on battery power. The entire experience is very cool. Even though I couldn't plug in to recharge at my apartment, I managed to drive about 80 miles over the weekend -- once the battery pack's charge was depleted, I simply continued on gasoline power.
Donny gripes about the range extender's noise, but I think it's a non-issue. While the 1.4-liter engine is a bit noisy at times, it never transmits any untoward vibration to the cabin, and it's no louder than the gasoline engine in hybrids like the Toyota Prius. Moreover, the range extender is essentially a backup function rather than a primary power source. Most Volt owners will run almost exclusively on electrical propulsion, and might only hear the engine during a Thanksgiving road trip to grandma's house.
A more pressing concern is the large plastic air dam that hangs only about an inch above the road surface. It's easy to scrape the plastic piece on steep driveways or speed bumps, but I am more concerned about how it will affect the car in winter. My expectation is that, like the low front lip on my SVT Focus, the plastic dam will act as a big snow plow and make it a pain to drive the Volt through more than two or three inches of snow.
Jake Holmes, Associate Web Editor
Chevrolet was the first with a mass-produced plug-in hybrid in North America, but Toyota's 2012 Prius PHEV is finally set to join the fray. The Toyota may undercut the Volt's MSRP by several thousand dollars, but I'd still pick the Volt for one simple reason: it's far easier to drive in electric mode.
Toyota's system doesn't promise as much EV range as the Chevy, as it claims to offer up to 15 miles of battery-powered driving before utilizing the car's standard gas-electric hybrid driveline. The problem is the Prius PHEV requires a feather-light touch on the gas pedal. Trying to accelerate in a moderate fashion will usually bring the engine online; trying to stay in EV mode while accelerating will likely annoy drivers behind you.
With a fully charged battery, there's no such drama in the Volt. Response to throttle pedal input is brisk, acceleration is peppy, and the car generally responds and performs like any conventional compact car. The exception, of course, is that its electric operation is eerily quiet and smooth. The 1.4-liter I-4 does make a bit of noise when serving as a generator, but is largely isolated from the driveline. And it doesn't suffer the shudders exhibited by other hybrids when switching between drivetrain modes.
Barring the likes of the Ford Model T, there has never been a single vehicle that manages to encompass or address the needs of the majority of drivers across the country. It's hard to say if the Volt is ideal for you - but with a 28-mile drive to and from work, access to chargers both at work and at home, the Volt could certainly work for me. So too could a Nissan Leaf, as I discovered this past summer - but at prices in the mid-$30,000 to low-$40,000 range, a new EV/ EREV would have to be my only car. Until rapid-cycle charging networks blossom across the country, the Volt is the only electric vehicle that could function as my sole means of transport.
Evan McCausland, Associate Web Editor
I had huge anxiety when the keys to this car were placed on my desk. I did not even know how to unplug it from the wall in our garage. The Volt though was more like an apple product than I thought, very intuitive to use. I think I had more issues trying to wrap the cold electric cable back up on the wall than doing anything with the car. It was surprisingly enjoyable to drive. I'm sad I only got to experience it for the commute home and back. I liked this test model's interior and exterior much better than the grey one we have had on our photo shoots. Well done!
Kelly Murphy, Creative Director
I spent Thanksgiving weekend in the Volt, mostly doing around-town driving, but with a couple of trips to the airport and one to downtown Detroit. The electrical charge quickly expired and I spent most of the weekend solely on gasoline power, since I don't have a high-voltage charger at home like we do at the office. And I have to say that I very much enjoyed the luxury of not having to worry about finding a charging point. The trip computer says that, over about 600 miles of driving done by all the editors since the car arrived in our fleet, we averaged 39 mpg. The center control stack is confusing and I don't care for the tactile qualities of the touch pad at all. I dropped someone at a hockey game and the gap between the rear seatbacks (the Volt's rear seat only fits two people) worked very well for hockey sticks. I launched the Volt with some speed into one of my favorite freeway on-ramps and was reminded that this is no sport sedan, as it understeered in protest, but that's okay because this is a perfectly drivable, usable, everyday car. I appreciate the extra rear window in the hatchback, which aids rear visibility. In our tester, the big decorative overlay panel on the dashboard above the steering wheel was loose in its mounts.
Joe DeMatio, Deputy Editor
The last time I drove a Chevy Volt was about six months ago, so I was looking forward to getting another chance to drive last year's Automobile of the Year. The Volt had been plugged in to the 240V charger all day, and when I climbed behind the wheel, the range indicator showed 29 miles. By the time I had driven the 11 miles home, however, there were only 12 miles left. In fairness to the Volt, it was cold and rainy, and I had both the heat and the seat heaters turned on. By the time my husband and I drove to a restaurant for dinner, the range was down to 2 miles. No problem, as the Volt switched over to the gasoline engine on the way home from the restaurant. The transition was quite seamless - no jerkiness and no huge increase in noise (I was on the freeway, so there was already some road and wind noise, plus the radio, while running under electric power).
The entire time I was driving the Volt it was dark and rainy (did I mention that Ann Arbor has just had the wettest year since records started being kept?), and that served to highlight one of the Volt's weak spots: inadequate headlights. After having driven several German cars recently, I found the Volt's headlamps to be severely underwhelming. Even with the high beams on, visibility just isn't as good as it should be, and at this time of year when it's not uncommon to encounter a deer on the road, it could be a safety issue. Another visibility issue concerns the large blind spot in the rear three-quarter area because of the very thick C-pillars.
Amy Skogstrom, Managing Editor