2011 Chevrolet Volt Review – First Drive

The future of the automobile has arrived, but it’s not for everyone

2011 Chevrolet Volt Review – First Drive
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In one of the highest profile vehicle launches in history, GM is attempting to reinvent itself – and its image – with the Volt electric car. After nearly four years of development and drama, the Volt will finally be arriving next month in limited numbers.

FAST FACTS

1. The Volt gets an emissions-free EV range of 25 to 50 miles and an additional 310-mile range after that, using a gasoline engine to charge the lithium-ion battery pack, which in turn powers the electric motor.

2. Power is rated at 149-hp and 273 ft-lbs of torque with a 0-60 mph time under 9.0 seconds.

3. Charging the Volt takes roughly 12 hours in a 120V household outlet or four hours with a special 240V charger.

4. The lithium-ion battery pack comes with an 8-year/100,000-mile warranty.

5. The Volt starts at $41,000 minus a $7,500 tax rebate plus roughly $2,000 for an in-home charger.

Contrary to Nissan’s all-electric approach with their upcoming Leaf, the Volt still has a gas-burning combustion engine on board as a backup to the electric drive system. The unique combination makes for a hugely complex drivetrain that is even more challenging to explain without the thesis turning into technical white papers.

YOU DONT HAVE TO UNDERSTAND IT TO DRIVE IT

The good news is that you don’t have to know exactly how the Volt works to drive it, because it is actually a very normal car to drive despite the complexity resting under the hood.

When charged above the battery’s buffer zone, the Volt is being propelled in what GM calls “EV mode.” Essentially the battery pack is supplying electric power to the traction motor, which is in turn turning the front differential. Simple enough, right?

Under this mode the car is, for all intents and purposes, an electric vehicle. On a full charge GM claims owners will be able to get anywhere from 25 to 50 miles out of the Volt on total electric power. During our testing we achieved 50.7 EV miles, but that drive included some hypermilling on our part. During more normal driving conditions we observed it to be fairly easy to achieve 40 miles in EV mode with the Volt – the number GM proclaimed for over a year until recently announcing the above range.

Once the EV range has been used up, the Volt enters “extended range mode” and the 1.4-liter gas burner engages to charge up the battery. Aside from a graphic change on the car’s seven-inch LCD display, the transition was entirely seamless to us. While in extended range mode we observed fuel economy figures of 35 to 40 miles per-gallon with mixed driving.

PREMIUM AND SPORTY AS A DAILY DRIVER

In both modes the Volt is a fairly entertaining drive. The car’s 400-pound battery pack provides a solid center of gravity that comes in handy during tight handling situations.  Sharp turns at speed are not a problem for the Volt, if not a joy for the driver.

Turning into those sharp angles is also a pleasure. The Volt’s electric steering is nicely weighted and has a strong on-center feel. Devoid is the numbness that has plagued many GM vehicles of the recent past.

Speaking of numbness, the Volt’s brakes can be at times. Not atypical of many hybrids, the Volt’s lack of a true mechanical connection to the brakes makes for odd feel. In fact, it can leave one to have a millisecond of panic.

Overall ride quality is exceptionally good on all road surfaces, which comes as little surprise, as the Volt is based on the same architecture that underpins the steady and smooth Cruze.

Inside the Volt evokes a premium look and feel, rightfully so considering the car wears a sticker price north of $40,000. All four seats are comfortable and dash materials—while not perfect—are acceptable. The interior also does an excellent job at minimizing road and wind noise in a car devoid of a loud drivetrain to assist in drowning out the surrounding environment.

The capstone of the Volt interior is the white center stack, which houses dozens of touch points in lieu of traditional buttons. The iPod-like design theme is unique, though the touch buttons require a visual inspection prior to touching.

Following in the footsteps of the Toyota Prius, the Volt visualizes nearly every aspect of the car’s propulsion system on two seven-inch LCD displays. The animation and interface are impressive and unlike similar systems from other manufacturers, the Volt’s interface is fast and, in our experience, bug-free.

The infotainment system also coaches Volt drivers to drive as economically as possible, another typical hybrid trait. A green ball displays the real time efficiency of the driver, while the car graphs and grades drivers after a trip or fill up.

In back the Volt’s premium feel is compromised a bit. While rear passengers are greeted with comfortable bucket seats, the car’s rakish roof line creates headroom problems for anyone six-foot and over. Legroom is adequate and average for the size of car.

THE VERDICT

Overall the Volt is an impressive ride and considering the technology behind it and its ease of use, perhaps the best vehicle GM has ever built – our apologies to the Corvette ZR1 and Cadillac CTS-V. The most impressive aspect of the car is the fact that it manages to be so ridiculously complex yet so normal to the end user. The Average Joe car buyer should have no problem adapting to the Volt as their daily driver, save for the minor alteration of plugging the car in at night.

At over $40,000 the Volt does not make economical sense over a high mileage compact, but early adopters will love the Volt, not unlike they loved the Prius over a decade ago. If you’re into high tech vehicles or the green movement, the Volt is a perfect match. For the rest of us…time will tell.

Buyers opting for the Volt will be eligible for a $7,500 income tax credit in the U.S., the same amount being offered for buyers of the all-electric Nissan Leaf. Several state-level rebates are also being offered on the Leaf, which widen the already large price gap between it and the Volt. 

Of course Volt owners may still get the final laugh. When the electric Leaf is stranded on the side of the road—out of juice—Volt owners can continue on for hundreds of miles.

And therein lays the electrifying debate surrounding the Volt and the Leaf: which is better?  The Leaf certainly has the price advantage, but it is not nearly as livable for the average American.

GM states that they will begin a nationwide rollout of the Volt within 12 to 18 months. At that point production could be as high as 60,000 units per year. Until then the car is available in select markets in the United States and in limited numbers at that. 

LOVE IT
  • Very livable car for anyone
  • Seamless transitions between various propulsion modes
  • Premium interior
  • Hefty $7,500 tax credit from the IRS
LEAVE IT
  • Priced above what most can pay for a midsize car
  • Tight rear headroom
  • Weak sound system
  • Odd brake feel

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2012 Toyota Prius PHV (Plug-In Hybrid Vehicle) Review
2010 Toyota Prius III Review
2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid Review
2011 Lincoln MKZ Hybrid Review – First Drive
2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid Review – First Drive
2011 Tesla Roadster 2.5 S Review

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