General Motors has a secret new car called the 2016 Chevrolet Volt.
It can run 53 miles solely on battery power before a gas engine takes over for 420 total miles, is more fun than an “eco” car has any right to be, and we’re here to tell you about it.
What? You say you already know about the Volt? You say it was first introduced late 2010 and is the first plug-in car to receive a full redesign after a full product life cycle?
OK, so you are one who knows, but apparently a lot of people do not know in this country of 320 million. Although analyses have shown the subsidized and cheap-to-fuel Volt could pencil out better than a Prius, its annual sales have never matched a good sales quarter for the Toyota.
Reasons for this are many, nuanced, and could fill their own article. In brief, the Volt still has critics, surveys and anecdotes show many people still don’t: 1) understand what it can do for them, or 2) see the value, or 3) even know it exists.
Part of this is because Chevrolet stopped marketing it outside of California and tech fairs at least as far back as some time in 2013. GM quit making sales projections after 2011, its former CEO called it a “political football” in April 2012, and the company nearly tucked its tail between its legs, relegating it into a “niche” product.
Well, no more, says the automaker. Product Manager Darin Gesse says its continuation to a second generation proves the company believes in the car. It benefits from generation-one Volt owners’ feedback, he says, and with the redesign Chevrolet hopes this will be a new beginning.
Steve Majoros, Chevrolet director of car marketing, says they will now advertise gen two as it rolls out this year and next, and if they do it right, this new Volt could experience a turnaround. If any car could be said to deserve it, this underappreciated one does. (A few interesting ads have already been released.)
As the first Volts are shipping to dealers in California and 10 states that follow its emission rules, Chevrolet invited media to the town of Sausalito just north of San Francisco to put the compact car through its paces.
Before we hit the road, however, its lead engineers were on hand to discuss what is the single most distinguishing characteristic about the Volt – its powertrain – which has been called by some who understand its inner workings “truly a work of art.”
The Volt is by definition a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) but Chevrolet distinguishes it as an extended-range electric vehicle (EREV) because unlike blended PHEVs, it can stay in the e-zone all the way till the battery depletes. It’s also unique in that its 53-miles electric range is more than double the next-nearest 19-mile Ford Energis, and pending 27-mile Hyundai Sonata PHEV.
The Volt’s “53” is actually combined. The EPA rates it for 57 all-electric miles in the city, and 49 all-electric miles highway. Efficiency has also been improved in gas operation to 43 mpg city, 42 mpg highway, 42 mpg combined on regular gas from a former 37 mpg combined on premium, and “miles per gallon equivalent” (MPGe) is 113 city, 99 highway, 106 combined. To qualify this a bit, sometimes “combined” MPGe is calculated as a combined gas-plus-electric efficiency using a Utility Factor that estimates a typical driver’s daily drive and that would result in a different and lower number.
ALSO SEE: 2016 Toyota Prius Video, First Look
Aside from the Volt-powered Cadillac ELR – which does not get the updated EREV platform, by the way – the 2016 Volt is in a class of one; there’s nothing else like it.
For 2016, the “drive unit” – the gas-electric transaxle – was redesigned. It’s 100 pounds lighter, and shed rare earth magnets in the smaller of its two motors and reduced them by 40 percent in the larger. It delivers more torque at 298 pound-feet over the former 273, and the same 149 horsepower (111 kilowatts).
Inside the drive unit now are two connected planetary gearsets. One motor is 117 horsepower (87 kilowatts), the other is 64 horsepower (48 kilowatts). They are connected by a sophisticated traction power inverter module (TPIM) and merged with a new all-aluminum 1.5-liter Ecotec engine. It features direct injection, 12.5:1 compression ratio, cooled exhaust gas recirculation and a variable displacement oil pump, and is rated for 101 horsepower at 5,600 rpm.
Formerly, the 2011-2015 Volt used a single planetary gearset and more powerful motors, at 74 horsepower (55 kilowatts) and 149 horsepower (111 kilowatts) respectively. The larger of two motors did most of the heavy lifting. The new design lets both lighter motors work together or singly.
The drive unit is different from generation one, but the EREV principle is retained. In EV driving, it’s a new feature that the two motors can work together so – despite smaller motors – total power is actually higher than in the original Volt. This allows the 243-pound lighter, 3,543-pound 2016 Volt to accelerate from 0-30 mph in 2.6 seconds – within realm of what a 60-kwh Tesla Model S can do, give or take a tenth of a second.
This new drive unit was also designed from its inception to enable GM to spin off hybrids at will, and the 2016 Malibu Hybrid was co-developed with a similar drive unit, but only 1.5-kwh battery, and no plug.
So, in the course of building the new Volt, GM may finally become competitive with Toyota in the regular hybrid space as well. The pending Malibu Hybrid is rated 6 mpg higher than the Camry Hybrid, thus the Volt is paying dividends before the first example is even delivered to a customer.
Power for the Volt is supplied by a new 18.4-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery replacing the former 17.1. Fewer and larger LG Chem cells are used, and the T-pack sheds 20 pounds.
When the battery is depleted – actually when the computer tells it to stop delivering power after about 14.0 kwh used – the gas engine kicks on. This is about 76 percent usable power of the nominal 18.4 total kilowatts, and GM upped it from about 65 percent of the battery used on gen-one.
With an exemplary reliability record, the decision was made to use more of the battery. It is warranted, and ought to last a normal consumer lifetime’s usage, barring complications.
Recharging takes about 4.5 hours on 240-volt level two power, or 13 hours for 120-volt house current. Many Volt owners don’t opt for level two, but some do. Some also wanted a bigger on-board charger, and it is, 3.6-kw instead of 3.3 which makes charge times comparable when charging at 240 volts. But not available is a 6.6-kw charger as some requested. This would have enabled quicker recharging, and some said they’d have paid extra for it, but this is one of the cost-reducing compromises GM settled upon.
Aside from those looking to charge intraday, or simply faster, most will be fine with this, however, as overnight charging on wall current is still all many will do.
Per normal electrified vehicle practice, the electric motors also generate power back to the battery, and serve in regenerative braking.
If you want a technical deep dive, part-time HybridCars.com tech writers published one on GM-Volt.com in February.
With one of the authors, Jeff Nisewanger, along for our drive, we were told by GM engineer Tim Grewe “it’s correct” as he talked rocket science (Volt engineering) with us.
But for now here’s what you need to know: the powertrain works well.
The new Volt’s body is supposed to have been inspired both by endurance athletes, and windblown sand. In the event you are not up on subtleties of quasi-abstract notions from the world of art and design language, we’ll just note it’s more swoopy and retains certain cues from gen-one.
It also fits into the Chevy family line, echoing the new Cruze, with a dash of Honda Civic and pinch of Kia Forte thrown in for flavor to its three-box design. It looks like a sedan, but is actually a hatchback.
Inside, another facelift took place. Gone are haptic feedback controls, in place are very tasteful and functional knobs and buttons. A nice high-resolution 8-inch touchscreen is reminiscent of an iPad Mini, and Apple CarPlay is one of numerous apps and functionalities.
Next year when the 2017 arrives early spring for the 39 states not getting it this year, Android Auto will be an option. Those with 2016 Volts will get a free software update for Android Auto at that time. Reports of self-driving Volts, if you heard any, were of a test fleet being developed, not an option for production vehicles. Yet.
An issue for some will be GM’s compact Delta II platform. While room is great up front, even for long-legged folk wearing a cowboy hat, in back it’s only adequate. The rear legroom grew 0.6 inches, headroom shrunk 0.2 inches, and a mid seating section added at driver request is OK for kids, or other lithe people for short hops.
Asked why Chevrolet went with a compact, Gesse said they mulled the options, and chose it as it’s a hot class of car for eco. And realistically, while everyone wants more of everything – including interior space – a whole lot of people actually commute solo or maybe with one passenger.
Chevrolet already had the longest EV-range for a gas-electric car on the market, short of a BMW i3 REx – which has less utility potential due to its 1.9-gallon gas tank.
The new Volt widens its pre-existing advantage with 13 more miles over an effective 40 miles the 17.1-kwh Volt could muster unofficially.
If you’re new to this, and say big deal to 13 miles EV range, that is enough to put many more people over the top and keep them in battery only for daily driving.
Based on OnStar data, Chevrolet expects an average 1,000 miles between fill-ups to its 8.9-gallon tank, which could work out to close to 120 mpg plus cost of electricity.
Many will do much more than this, and the car has been known to go for months without turning the gas engine on aside from it briefly automatically running to maintain engine lubrication every six weeks.
On our drive, we saw 54 miles range alternately pushing it and nursing it by using the paddle on the left backside of the steering wheel for regenerative braking. In gas operation, we averaged 40 mpg though depending on conditions, this may vary above or below several mpg.
The “Regen on Demand” braking paddle (the right-side paddle is a split multi-function switch) was adopted from the Cadillac ELR, and every electrified vehicle ought to have one. It significantly increases battery replenishing energy up to 54 kw depending on power demand, or close to half of max output. It feels like brakes, but it works a bit more abruptly. The driver is not able to lightly feather or modulate it like friction brakes, but it’s definitely better to have than not, and the brake pedal still lets you feather regenerative braking. The car can also be shifted to L which adds regen up to 49 kw depending on power demand.
Inside, comfort is great. This could be a road trip car, especially for two in the spacious front, or with kids in back in the just-OK rear seat room.
Sight lines are improved, the A-pillar is not as obtrusive as in gen-one, but still beefy for rollover safety. Manually adjustable seats to save weight don’t seem like much of an inconvenience, but we hear people say they wish they had the option for power seats.
The new gauges, and controls are attractively laid out following cues from the new Chevy family. The new touchscreen works nicely with a smartphone – we used an iPhone 5S with CarPlay – and experienced no wonkiness.
But while cars are morphing into rolling desktops and phone booths, they are still meant for driving, and our route could not have been better to test handling, highway, and around town.
A claim to fame is the Volt is fun, and that it was – on curve after curve of surreal tight twisties on a long stretch of Route 1 above San Francisco.
The Volt doesn’t protest when pushed, though tire scrubbing could be heard as we challenged the low rolling resistance Michelin tires built for Volt fitment.
Doing ham-fisted moves like braking with the paddle regen into tight slow corners made the front tread scuff more, but overall, this is a decent handling car.
Product Manager Gesse estimated if you switched to summer rubber, you’d get better grip but maybe lose a couple miles range, and a mpg or two in gas operation. Most won’t feel the need.
It is no Subaru WRX, but definitely beats a 2015 Prius and some other ordinary cars in its class. Toyota is saying the new 2016 Prius now handles better, so we’ll see when we drive it in mid November, but really, the Prius is only loosely a competitor.
Augmenting the Volt experience is the famed “instant torque.” Push the accelerator and it goes. We were not confused that we’d taken out a Camaro Z28 by mistake, but it will be satisfying for most drivers.
On the highway, it’s smooth and with plenty of passing power. One thing still present is a “thrumming” noise of reverberation in the ears can occur when a window is lowered, particularly in the back.
Incidentally, quickest acceleration according to Greg Hubbard, chief engineer, Electric and Hybrid Propulsion Systems, is from the motors operated by the battery, not the internal combustion engine.
The gas engine, not incidentally, may run in battery preserving Hold mode which suspends EV operation, saving it for later, or Charge Sustaining mode – the phase that takes over when the battery is depleted. Both Hold and CS do the same thing, but Hold sustains the battery’s state of charge while there is enough energy left to run in EV mode, and CS is a default state when propulsion energy is no longer available.
The difference between gas or electric operation will be imperceptible to most anyone, but on paper, a smidgeon more propulsion energy is available in EV mode. So, to settle some misinformation we’ve seen on the forums, quickest 0-30, 0-60 etc, is with gas engine off, says Chevrolet. Unfortunately we were unable to run our own track tests during this drive event.
On our drive, once the juice ran out, the Ecotec engine seamlessly came on in CS mode as per normal Volt practice. Noise, vibration and harshness are muted better than the kind-of grindy 1.4-liter iron block mill that came before.
At odd intervals, the TPIM may decide to opportunity charge and rev the engine without actually applying that energy to the front wheels to accelerate, of course. We heard this a few times on rolling terrain, after cresting a rise.
Bear in mind, this is an extremely sophisticated managed powertrain.
According to Grewe, a dedicated system optimizer computer takes into account recent driving behavior. Five different computers cooperate to control the powertrain. If one computer decides to emulate the computer named Hal from 2001 A Space Odyssey, and go off the deep end, the other computers can veto its commands to ensure redundant safety.
Chevrolet’s powertrain makes it hands-down the most effective gas-saving hybrid on average-length daily trips in the world. This is fact. A study presented to SAE showed it outdoes all other plug-in hybrids. And, U.S. Energy Department-run Idaho National Lab has shown it goes nearly as far on electricity as pure EVs.
Qualifiers to its gas-saving include on longer trips, perhaps over 100 miles, the Volt’s EV advantage averaged in with 42 mpg gas operation diminishes next to superior fuel sippers such as regular hybrids.
The preeminent regular hybrid, a 2016 Prius, may get 55 mpg and on long trips it would be superior. Also, emissions advantages are a toss-up depending on upstream emissions, if applicable. Renewable electricity magnifies the Volt’s environmental potential significantly. More info can be seen at fueleconomy.gov.
In any case, the Volt stands to help American manufacturing, the environment, and energy security. The 2017 will rise to 70-percent U.S. content when the Flint engine plant comes online and Mexican engines are switched out sometime into the model year.
The new Volt is furthermore evolved, so it benefits from lessons learned from the first round of buyers.
As for looks, the move to “mainstream” aspirations, has the Volt blending in, and odd “eco” car design was never the Volt’s thing, but it did previously stand out more.
Frankly, until now, General Motors has been said to be sending mixed messages with the Volt. Former Vice Chairman Bob Lutz once said it might “leapfrog” the Prius, its history never bore that out, and Chevrolet’s present lead marketer literally said he was not in on that conversation, and finds it irrelevant to what the Volt has become.
So the Volt wants to be mainstream, but it’s been a niche. Is that an oxymoron? A mainstream niche product? And plug-in car watchers are still scratching their head, looking for a congruent message this time. Chevrolet is working to spread excitement, but changed plans in September so 39 states will not receive 2016s. It says it wants to nail down the 11 states, get set up, and move forward. Observers are hoping this won’t be mixed messages round two.
But if something about the Volt is a deal breaker for you, there’s always the Ford Fusion Energi, 2016 Hyundai Sonata PHEV, others in this class, or whatever else works for you.
The well-balanced fun-yet-frugal Volt should however please more people than not.
Price starts at $33,995 including $825 destination. An upscale LTZ trim starts at $38,345.
Eligible for a full $7,500 federal tax credit – a couple thousand more than the PHEVs – and state subsidies where applicable, its total cost of ownership can prove amazingly good.
How good? Edmunds True Cost To Own calculator has shown last year’s 2015 model priced at $32,500 after dealer discounts could earn back the difference and then save an average driver in Southern California $6,000 in five years compared to a $21,400 Chevy Cruze.
The 2016 ought to do better, and it should sell better.
In question is whether Volt sales will surprise analysts who predict the 200-mile range 2017 Chevy Bolt, Nisan Leaf, and Tesla Model 3 will steal sales after the first year.
Maybe, maybe not. That there’s upward potential is clear. This Volt has been reinvented, and we think it has paid dues, not all of them justified. Perhaps it’s due for a rebound?
We certainly hope so. For all the fair and unfair observations focused on this Chevy over the last half decade, it is a winner and the new one is better.
This article first appeared on HybridCars.com