Does the Volt live up to the hype?
January 17, 2014
By: Jordan Marmara
Photos: Laurence Cutrone
It’s not very often that a car is introduced that turns the world on its head. It’s difficult to recall a vehicle that was launched with as much rumor, fanfare and drama as the Chevrolet Volt was back in 2010. Launched on November 30th (the same as your author, although I believe my mother would prefer I resist using the term ‘launch’ to describe my birth) the Volt represented a whole new way of thinking when it came to driving. The economy was in the grasp of what we now call the great recession, and “new GM” needed some positive PR after exiting a highly publicized, and government aided bankruptcy and reorganization. But honestly, it’s not really about the drama with this car. In fact, it’s all about how drama free the Volt really is.
Conceived as not only a Prius fighter, but a Prius beater, the Volt showed the world that the General could think outside of the box every now and then. It represented a big leap forward when it came to what we know as hybrids today. Much has been made of what to actually call the Volt. Is it a plug-in-hybrid? Is it an extended range electric vehicle? Well the answer is in a word, both. I would really rather avoid the whole “definition drama” because honestly, who cares? This is a vehicle that transcends traditional definitions of the automotive world, so much so that the EPA had to create its own way of evaluating fuel mileage for it. The Volt doesn't like to be put in a category, and it defines this with every mile that you drive it.
Based on GM’s Delta II architecture, the Volt is certainly not a very large car. Its compact dimensions have presented several positives and negatives in its year with us. The Volt’s small overall footprint makes it pretty easy to park and maneuver in tight spaces, however there are several blind spots that are worth mentioning. Over the driver’s shoulder, the large C-pillars present a challenge when negotiating traffic on the highway, and the enormous A-pillars do the same for front outward visibility. During a few drives to the mountains of eastern North Carolina, they made negotiating the tight mountain roads much more difficult. The positives behind these massive A-pillars is a chassis that feels extremely solid and a “Good” overall safety rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Looking out the back is made more difficult because of the large spoiler (necessary to make the Volt more aerodynamic) which bisects the rear glass horizontally. This hasn't been such a problem thanks to our Volt’s optional rear view camera. However, and this needs mentioning, the rear view camera is merely adequate in its quality. With grainy image quality, lack of “guide lines” and the camera’s uncanny ability to get super dirty, super fast, there is some definite room for improvement down the road.
Inside, the Volt’s cabin is meant to remind its owner that it is something special. The Volt comes standard with many creature comforts like power windows, power door locks, auto dimming mirror, automatic climate control, cruise control, automatic headlights, LCD instrumentation, touchscreen controls for HVAC and radio, CD player, electronic parking brake, heated front seats (cloth too!) and USB and 3.5 mm AUX input. The most dramatic part of the interior is most certainly the almost completely touch sensitive center stack.
Although I still find knobs to be far superior for certain functions (Volume and Menu Selection/Tuning knobs are included in the Volt), I definitely see the reason behind including touch sensitive buttons here. Sometimes it’s all about the image you are trying to convey, and for right now it’s all about touch sensitive controls. Be it in your smartphone, tablet or even your thermostat, touch controls are the current rage and they project the personality of the Volt’s tech-focused drivetrain to the interior of the cabin. During the past year, the touch-based system has only frozen once, which was quickly solved by quickly restarting the car (which is definitely drama free thanks to the Volt’s electric drivetrain and push-button start). It doesn't feel natural to use these buttons, and it takes some concentration, but it's certainly not the deal breaking frustration that I recently experienced with a Ford SYNC system that I used recently. The addition of haptic feedback would be a welcome addition to the second generation car. I say yes to the touch buttons, they serve a purpose and give GM’s technological masterpiece that much more tech cred, just get it right!
The remainder of the interior is decidedly more pedestrian. Outside of the controversial 2 + 2 seating arrangement, there really isn't too much that is special about the inside of the Volt. Our model came with cloth seats which are durable and actually pretty comfortable (however enhanced lumbar adjustment and power seat controls would be fantastic). Front leg room is more than adequate, but those who prefer shopping at the big and tall section might find the Volt’s head and hip room more of a challenge for them. Rear legroom however is pretty tight, even for me at 5’10”. It’s not completely uncomfortable, especially on short trips, but the Volt could definitely stand to gain a few inches of rear legroom for its redesign. That being said, on one trip from Charlotte, NC to New York and back, our adult rear seat passenger had no complaints. The Volt’s cargo area was actually a bit more generous than expected, fitting three pieces of full size luggage along with some smaller bits as well. The load floor is flat and actually pretty large, with only the slanted rear glass impeding on storage capabilities. The Volt’s cargo carrying abilities are aided by the fact that each of the Volt’s rear seats can fold flat separately, meaning you can carry a rear passenger, and that skateboard ramp that you couldn't say no to.
Outside, the Volt features the traditional mix of a short, angled hood and high rear spoiler that have been featured for years on the Toyota Prius and Honda Insight, but there is something about the way that these features come together on the Volt which makes it simply look better. The Volt’s fascia features projector beam headlights, with separate fog-light-esque assemblies for the turn signals (the Volt does not have fog lights, even as an option), and a stylish sealed off upper grill to enhance aerodynamics. The Volt's deep front splitter also helps the Volt's aerodynamics, much to the dismay of any driveway or inclines more aggressive than 2 degrees and people around that have to hear the racket that is created. Daytime running lights are of the now ubiquitous LED type at the far edges of each headlight, and add a bit of “techiness” to an otherwise clean and handsome front end. Following the chromed character line along the side will lead you to standard side-mirror mounted LED turn signals and push-button lock/unlock on the door handles. The rear end features LED taillights with a low mounted center backup light, a la Cadillac (or formerly Saturn Sky). The rear hatch is clean, and does not feature a windscreen wiper, which is fine because We never really needed it anyway. The rear hatch is a bit heavy but easy to operate using the touch pad lock/unlock button. A power operated lift gate would be a big "WOW!" factor here. The Volt’s exterior, as different as it is from the concept, is purposeful but also quite handsome. It’s arguably easily the best looking hybrid vehicle except for perhaps the Tesla Model S and the now defunct Fisker Karma.
The Volt’s real party piece isn't about a touch sensitive radio or a bunch of LEDs, it’s all about the drive. Thankfully there is very little to be disappointed about with the Volt’s drive system. The instant torque from the Volt’s motor, which is capable of 149 hp and a whopping 273 lb-ft of torque, is gasp inducing. The acceleration from a standstill (especially in "Sport Mode") has been described to me by passengers as "being launched by a roller coaster". This may be a little dramatic, because the most the Volt can muster are sub 9 second runs to 60 MPH, but the feeling of acceleration is undeniable, even if it tapers off after about 30 MPH. Needless to say, I did actually beat a Dodge Challenger off the line once, probably because he was distracted by the touch buttons on the center stack. Speaking of buttons, pressing the "Drive Mode" button a few times will toggle between a few separate driving modes (Note to GM: It would be great to have a knob to select between Normal, Hold and Mountain with an embedded "Sport" button to initiate and maintain sport mode, similar to how some HVAC systems have a knob to direct airflow and when pushed toggle the recirculating air feature). Normal is exactly what it sounds like, a normal electric-based driving mode with a slightly reduced throttle input. Next is "Sport" which is still electrically motivated, but the throttle mapping is altered to allow a much more aggressive acceleration feel, with what we found to be little increase in energy use - this is the mode you will want to drive in all the time. Then we have "Hold" mode which is actually extremely useful. When driving on the highway, it's actually more efficient to save your electricity for in town driving. "Hold" will allow you to hold onto the current state of charge in your battery, and use the gas generator to maintain that state of charge. Finally "Mountain" mode is useful when you know you will be traversing some steep inclines. "Mountain" mode will charge the battery to roughly 60% charge and maintain that charge so that both electricity and gasoline will have you climbing up that mountain with smooth efficiency. It is important to note that "Mountain" mode will run the engine at slightly higher RPMs, there is nothing abnormally wrong with this. That being said, at lower speeds and at super steep inclines, the Volt's generator can get a little noisy, and this is not a noise that is particularly pleasant. However, at highway speeds the passengers will struggle to tell a difference between the Volt and a normal car, unlike city driving where the generator delays its reaction to the accelerator pedal by a few seconds.
Stopping the Volt isn't quite as fun, but then again it rarely is in a normal car also. The Volt's regenerative braking system is very obvious, and was the biggest detractor to most people who drove it. Although it's purpose is valid and honorable, the brake pedal's feel is a bit too "touchy" for us. Initially, the electric is motor is used to slow the vehicle down, but as more pressure is added, the mechanical brakes engage and there is a sudden increase in braking ability. It's very difficult to modulate initially, and traffic jams become a nightmare, but overtime it does become a bit easier to master those smooth stops. If braking smoothly is a concern of course, there is also "Low" mode, which can be engaged using the transmission shifter. "Low" mode ups the ante when it comes to regenerative engine braking, so once you let off the throttle you will sense an immediate deceleration process. This is great around town because it basically allows you to drive the Volt with just the accelerator if you time it right. Not to mention the benefit of all the extra electrons you will be grabbing in the process! That being said, the deceleration is strong enough that it may cause those driving behind you to become annoyed that your brake lights aren't coming on, so caution should be exercised.
One of the most fun aspects of driving the Volt, however, is its amazing ability to seamlessly switch over from pure electric power to gas powered mode when the battery is "worn out" (the Volt won't actually completely discharge its battery in order to preserve battery life, and that buffer also creates a temporary "crawl mode" if you run out of gas). I have had several passengers look over at the gauge cluster, and wonder what will happen when the battery runs out. "You do realize that you only have two miles left, right?". This is the beauty of the Volt's system. You need not worry about running out of juice. Since electricity is still the only motivating factor for the Volt, the transition is compete seamless as the generator comes on to charge, and then turns off when its not needed. It will be fun to see how this system evolves over time. A diesel variant, like the Opel Flextreme concept, would be a great next step. I even think with a more potent battery with a roughly 50 mile range, the gas tank could shrink quite a bit and a smaller and a more efficient engine could take the current four banger's place.
What’s really more interesting though is how seamlessly the Volt blends performance with efficiency. The whole purpose of the Volt is to save money at the pump, and during the past year, our Volt certainly has done this. By charging every night exclusively using the standard 110V charger, we have managed to drive mostly (72%) on electricity, and this means savings at the pump. Over the last year our Volt has traveled over 10,075 miles. During this time (which included one round trip from Charlotte to N.Y. and two trips to the mountains) the Volt only used 76.28 gallons of gasoline. That equates to $281.47 when using the national average premium fuel price from 2013 ($3.69). Our electric bill was only slightly affected by charging the Volt with an average increase of $13 per month leading to an estimated total cost of $156. Combine the two together, and the total cost of fuel for one year at roughly 10,000 miles of driving was an astonishing $437.47. Keep in mind, this is in an area with very little charging capability, when charging regularly at each stop, the savings should increase even more. If we had driven the same amount last year in a vehicle rated for 25.63 MPG (the average MPG rating for compact vehicles), our fuel costs would increase to $1,450.52, this represents an annual average savings of $1,013.05. This number will vary greatly for each person based on their driving habits, local fuel costs, and which vehicle you are leaving behind.
When it comes to Volt ownership, it really boils down to two possible reasons. You could be coming off a lease, and you want to try something completely new that could save you money at the pump. Or, you could be a techno maniac and you are interested in the latest and greatest technology available at your price range. When we picked up our Volt we walked out with a $252 a month cost for 36 months at $3,000 down. If your lease rate is near this amount, you are doing yourself a disservice in not at least giving the Volt a chance. It’s fantastically fun to drive, it gets 'thumbs up' everywhere it goes, and you will likely visit the gas station a lot less while driving it (we only went to the gas station 9 times in one year, and that is including three non-electrified road trips). The Volt’s ability to fit into your daily routine while making feel like you’re driving the future is its trump card. It’s something you must experience for longer than a test drive. GM would be wise to offer a week long test drive event to allow consumers the opportunity to see how the Volt fits into their life, because chances are it will and those customers will never look back to the days of fiddling with knobs and pumping gasoline again. Save that drama for your mama.
2013 Chevrolet Volt Specifications
Assembly Site Hamtramck, Detroit, Michigan Starting Price (Before Federal Rebates) $39,145 Options Enhanced Safety Package 1, Comfort Package, Cargo Net Price As Tested $40,905 $40,905 Platform Delta II Wheelbase 105.7 in /2,685 mm Overall Length 177.1 in / 4,498 mm Overall Width 70.4 in / 1,788 mm Overall Height 56.6 in / 1,438 mm Curb Weight 3,781 lbs / 1,715 kg Headroom 37.8 in / 960.12 mm (front)
36.02 in / 914.91 mm (rear)
Legroom 42.05 in / 1,068.07 mm (front)
34.10 in / 866.14 mm (rear)
Shoulder Room 56.52 in / 1,435.61 mm (front)
53.90 in / 1,369.06 mm (rear)
Hip Room 53.73 in / 1,364.74 mm (front)
51.20 in / 1,300.48 mm (rear)
Engine (Generator) 1.4-liter EcoFLEX I4 (LUU)
84 hp (63 kW) / 93 lb-ft (126 Nm) torque
Electric Drive Motor Permanent Magnet Electric Motor
149 hp (111 kW) / 273 ft-lb (370 Nm) torque
Transmission/Drive FWD CVT Voltec 4ET50 Multi-mode electric transaxle EPA Ratings 35 /40 MPG (City/Highway Gasoline)
98 MPGe (Electric)
Observed Fuel Economy 132 MPG (28% gasoline/ 72% electric miles driven) Recommended Fuel Unleaded Premium Maintenance Costs $21.45 (7,500 miles - Tire Rotation)
-Outstanding efficiency potential
-Solid handling and driving feel
What Needs Work:
-No 5th seat possible
-Touchy "hybrid style" brakes
-Touch sensitive center stack is an annoyance to some