RECENTLY DRIVEN

CHEVROLET VOLT  

photo Réjean Poudrette

Chevrolet's conventional twin-slot grille fronts a car filled with some very advanced technology. The grille area has shutters that close at speed  to reduce wind resistance

Car tested 2012 Chevrolet Volt
Body style Four-door hatchback
Engine Electric motor (63 kW/149 HP); generated by electricity: 1.4L‑4 (84 HP)  gasoline generator to provide power for electric motor once the battery is depleted
Transmission None
Price $41,454
Price as tested $48,500 (polished alloy wheels, joule paint, premium cabin upgrade group including leather, navigation including audio upgrade)

 

 photo Réjean Poudrette

History
First presented at the Detroit auto show in 2007, the Volt  is GM's idea of an extended-range electric vehicle. The eye-catching shape of the concept car could not be produced in volume, but its  battery-powered electric propulsion and range-extending gasoline engine acting as a generator made it to production -- a monumental  feat. The production car survived GM's U.S. descent into bankruptcy. 

The Volt went on sale in the U.S. in the fall of 2010, arriving in Canada a year later.

Key Competitors
With its range extending gasoline power, the Volt is unique. Only the new plug-in Toyota Prius also has the ability to operate under full battery power until depleted and then become a regular gasoline hybrid. However,  the Prius' range on battery power alone is limited.  Full electrics, like the Ford Focus BEV, Mitsubishi iMiEV and Nissan Leaf offer greater range under electric power but are stranded when the batteries are depleted.  

photo Réjean Poudrette

One port for both 120 and 240 volt charging

Performance
Under battery power, the Volt's electric motor delivers brisk, instant, acceleration in near total silence.  Interior noise is acceptable after the gasoline-powered range-extending generator starts up. Wind noise and road noise are noticeable, and perhaps more obvious because of the absence of noise from the engine when it is not running.

Under ideal conditions (about 20 degrees Centigrade), the Volt can travel about 65 kilometres under battery power before its gas generator kicks in. For the 2013 model year, small tweaks have extended the range in electric mode by a couple of kilometres. The Volt's electric reserve gauge consistently displayed an accurate estimate of the remaining range. A conventional gear selector reinforces the remarkably "normal" driving experience the car provides. 

The Volt's electric power steering is nicely weighted and geared. The suspension combines a resiliently firm ride with crisp handling. However, the suspension is noisy; reverberating impact noises and clunking are constant when rolling over rough pavement, which hurts refinement and had the APA wondering about the durability of suspension components.  The regenerative brakes require a long pedal stroke and heavy effort for quick stops.

Outward vision is less than ideal, hampered by a low seating position and big windshield pillars.  The air conditioner is powerful.  

Winter operation
The APA had an opportunity to experience the Volt in the winter, and the car performed a bit differently in cold weather. Even when the battery pack was charged, the Volt's gasoline-powered generator would come on for a few minutes after every start in cold weather. In a 25 kilometre one-way commute, the Volt consumed two to three litres of gasoline on each journey, with overall fuel consumption being roughly 6L/100 km. In summer, the gasoline-powered generator is virtually silent at the lower of its two fixed RPM cycles. In winter, the higher RPM cycle, which is noisier and transmits some vibration into the cabin, engages more frequently. 

Braking is less satisfactory in winter, and the brakes tend to lock slightly at low speeds. The low-mounted front spoiler has limited ground clearance for snowy conditions. Windshield defrosting is efficient enough, but heater output is a weak in very cold weather and the fan needs to be run at its highest speed to warm up the occupants. The heater is helped somewhat by quick-acting and toasty-warm seat heaters.

The Volt features a  remote starter that can warm the cabin and defrost the windows before you enter the car. If the car is plugged in, the cabin pre-heater runs off utility company power and doesn't drain the battery pack at all! The charger can be programmed to function when electricity rates are lowest, to reduce operating costs.

  

photo Réjean Poudrette
The Volt's 1.4L gasoline engine and electric motor are packaged together under the Volt's conventional hood

Interior
The Volt's cabin is fronted by a liquid crystal display (LCD) gauge package of remarkable visual brilliance. The gauge cluster has three main readouts, a speedometer in the middle, a battery life/kilometres-to-empty graphic on the left, and a display for real-time driving efficiency on the right.

The dash centre-stack is topped by a large LCD screen containing either the navigation display or various ancillary readouts, depending on driver preference. The centre-stack also houses the audio and climate controls. The controls for these two systems are co-mingled, leading to confusion, which is further undermined by touch-sensitive switches that don't always respond to driver inputs as they should. 

While the controls aren't the easiest to operate, they, and the rest of the cabin, look great. Stung for years by comments about its shabby cabins, and knowing that the Volt was going to be expensive and THE technological standard-bearer for General Motors, GM crafted an elegant, futuristic interior for the Volt. Abundant soft-touch surfaces, matte finishes, chic two-toning and careful assembly are consistent with  the Volt's high price and importance to GM.

The Volt's battery pack occupies a spine down the middle of the car, splitting both the front and rear into bucket seats, and making  the car a four-seater. Seating is comfortable front and rear.  Legroom is plentiful in front, but rear seat legroom is very tight. Rear seat headroom is also less than generous. 

Though the Volt looks like a conventional sedan, it is actually a hatchback. Relatively deep below the window line, the Volt's adequate trunk space can be augmented by folding down the rear seatbacks. The audio system provides good sound, but excellence is expected from an upgraded unit like that installed in APA's  test Volt.   

photo Réjean Poudrette
Incredibly crisp liquid crystal display gauge package on the Volt. The green ball located between two parallel lines on the far right reflects real-time driving, migrating up or down depending on how gently or aggressively the car is being driven. The battery-like tube on the far left represents battery charge and the remaining range under battery power

photo Réjean Poudrette photo
Knowing that the Volt was going to be an expensive car that was also going to be the standard-bearer for GM's advanced technology, GM took considerable care when it created the Volt's cabin and used high quality  materials. That said, the co-mingled climate and audio controls, and their touch-sensitive controls need improving. The conventional shifter works better than the mysterious joysticks used by some competitors

Living with the Volt
Other than a heavy, short cord that forced some APA staffers to use an extension cord (which got trapped in ice overnight), recharging the Volt is a snap. The Volt recharges in seven hours from a conventional socket, which is less than half the time needed to recharge a Nissan Leaf. 

In Quebec, Hydro Quebec has introduced a network of recharging stations across the province it calls "The Electric Circuit". Electric car owners in major urban areas will be able to grab an hour or two of charge while shopping or dining at over 100 locations, concentrated in the Saint Hubert Rotisserie, RONA and Metro supermarket chains.

Not all points were operational in June 2012, and the APA discovered that the charging outlet at the suburban Montreal outlet where we planned to stop was not installed yet. Worse still, if you're only staying for an hour or two, the charging rate is so slow that the benefit is largely cancelled out by the drive to the charging station! The charging infrastructure will eventually have to be optimized for locations where an electric vehicle is likely to be parked for more than a couple of hours, and the downtime during charging will have to drop substantially to make recharging-on-the-go a reality.   

 o

photo Réjean Poudrette
A conventional silhouette hides a hatchback tail. The Volt is a four-seater, as its battery occupies a spine down the centre of the car. The trunk is reasonably deep below the window line. The two rear seatbacks fold to increase the length of the cargo bed.

Reliability
Not rated. The Volt is a brand new design that uses a lot of unique technology. The Volt has a three year/60,000 km bumper to bumper warranty, five years/160,000 km on the powertrain, and eight years/160,000 on the electric powertrain. Routine servicing requirements are comparable to a conventional gas engine. The electric propulsion system is virtually maintenance-free. Regenerative braking means that conventional pads and rotors should last longer than on a conventional car.  Repairs are likely to be dealer-only for some time. As with other EVs and hybrids, long-term reliability is unknown (except for the Prius, which has an enviable track record).
 

Pricing
At a base price of $41,454, the Volt is much more expensive than a compact gasoline-powered hatchback of similar size. After-delivery rebates of $8,321 in Ontario and $8,000 in Quebec reduce the actual cost of the Volt considerably. Lease payments (48 months, $0 down) are virtually the same as financing (60 months $0 down) making leasing a non-starter. With the rebate, it's significantly cheaper than most entry-level luxury cars, but it doesn't appear to be attracting buyers in that segment.

The base Volt is priced nearly $6,000 higher than the base version of the Toyota Prius Plug-in, which is the car closest in concept to the Volt. The Volt costs nearly $6,000 more than a base Nissan Leaf, but benefits from a range-extending gasoline powered generator, and is a much more versatile proposition. The new all-electric Ford Focus BEV is priced only $356 less than the base Volt but lacks the Chevrolet's range-extending powertrain. Mitsubishi's iMiEV, a pure electric car, has an $8,547 lower MSRP than the base Volt, but is a less robust, less refined vehicle than the Chevrolet or all-electric Leaf. 

Safety
The Volt is equipped with dual front, seat-mounted side, side-curtain airbags and knee area airbags for both front occupants. The Volt is an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety Top Safety Pick, and was rated Good in the IIHS's frontal, side, and rear crash tests,  and in the roof strength test.

photo, Réjean Poudrette photo
The Volt's rear end contains a smoked-glass element which is the sole vestige of the glazed band that circumvented the passenger compartment of the original show car

Overall Assessment
After spending time behind the wheel  in various battery powered  and hybrid vehicles, the APA has come to realize that battery range is not the big limiter with electric vehicles. By way of example, motorcycles typically will not travel more than 150 km on a tank of fuel; that's similar to the better EVs, but riders think nothing of long distance travel. With EVs, the limiters are recharging times and the undeveloped charging infrastructure. A motorcycle rider can fill up in under five minutes every couple of hours at a gas station and get back on the road. With an EV, even in Quebec where a highway charging system is being installed, you'll be waiting for several hours before getting back on the road. To APA that's the real limitation, and one that only the gas-powered hybrid EVs can currently resolve.

After winter and summer tests, the APA came away very impressed with GM's latest electric car effort. The Volt is a more versatile package the could function as a family's primary or only vehicle, unlike the all-electric Leaf and more recent battery-only vehicles. It's well assembled, and the best handling of the "Green" cars. The Volt is an early  ticket into the electric vehicle age, before the charging infrastructure and battery charging technology are fully mature. .

The Volt's principal limitations are its high price compared with a conventional car of similar size and utility, and a small back seat. Plenty of cars and SUVs offer less originality and features than a Volt, yet they command  higher prices on account of the public's willingness to pay more for SUV and luxury features than "green" car benefits  like very low fuel consumption. At this time, despite concern over fuel prices, sales of the Volt have been very weak in Canada; however, it is outpacing full-electric EVs like the Leaf and iMiEV.