What It Is/Who It's For
The 2012 Chevrolet Volt is for those wanting an electric car without being confined to the battery's charge and are willing to pay for it.
Driving around all day without using a single drop of expensive gasoline.
Front bumper rubbing the ground at driveways.
The Chevrolet Volt offers all the advantages of an EV without its range limitations. Unfortunately, there are just too many fuel-efficient alternatives available at lower prices.
The Chevrolet Volt is probably one of the most requested vehicles we're asked to review among non-enthusiasts, following the Corvette. How does it ride? What's its real fuel economy? What happens if you don't plug it? The interest is understandable. While Americans are beginning to understand how hybrids and electric cars work, the Chevrolet Volt is unique among even such vehicles: it's an electric car coupled with a gasoline motor. Unlike hybrid vehicles, which possess a similar-sounding, dual-powerplant configuration, the Volt's gasoline engine is designed to recharge the primary battery, which actually powers the EV's wheels. General Motors calls the Volt's gasoline engine a "range extender," and is similar to engines found on modern locomotives.
The technology is cool, sure, but how does the Volt ride? How did it handle? Does it drive like a regular car? Does it have special requirements, like pure electric vehicles' range limit? We spent a busy week driving the Volt to answer these -- and more -- questions.
What We Drove
The base 2012 Chevrolet Volt starts at $39,995, a jaw-dropping figure for a supposedly mainstream vehicle. The Volt's price becomes more reasonable against direct competitor the Nissan Leaf electric vehicle, which starts around $36,020. (Both prices include destination and handling fees). Note, though, the Volt and the Leaf get federal and state subsidies that can take thousands of dollars off the price. Our test vehicle, after applying the federal subsidy and the $1,500 California rebate, would price $30,995. Still a hefty sum, but suddenly not so bad in a world of $30,000 Toyota Camrys and Honda Accords, especially considering the Volt's one-of-a-kind engine. GM stocks the Volt with plenty of standard features like keyless entry, remote start, and heated outside rearview mirrors. The automaker then goes all luxury on us, adding $1,395 worth of leather on the front heated seats and steering wheel. Our Volt also came with premium speaker system for $495 and near $2,000 hi-tech infotainment system. Final price came just under $40,000, a figure normally found among premium and entry-level luxury brands. Yet the Volt's tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel operates manually; same with the seat controls, and both feel like omissions at this price. GM most likely didn't include such features in order to reduce the Volt's weight; it skips the spare tire for similar reasons.
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Safety is always a consideration to car buyers, especially on brand new models. Our Chevrolet Volt came with all the standard safety paraphernalia: eight airbags, antilock disc brakes, electronic stability control, and tire pressure monitoring system. Like virtually all GM vehicles, the Chevy Volt comes with a three-year subscription to OnStar, GM's telematics system, which contacts live operators in the case you get in accident. These operators can then locate you and notify emergency services even if no one can call at the scene. Neat. Other services from OnStar include navigation and remote vehicle diagnostics.
The NHTSA gave the Volt its maximum five stars on its front, side, and rollover crash tests, and four stars in the front passenger frontal crash test. The private Insurance Institute for Highway Safety organization gave the Chevy Volt a Good rating on all its tests, earning a Top Safety Pick. General Motors has recently ordered enhancements on all current and future Volt vehicles, specifically its battery system, in the wake of an investigation by the NHTSA over battery fires in certain circumstances. The case has since been closed.
The Chevrolet Volt's appearance garnered a lot of positive comments from the Automotive.com staff as well as from friends and even perfect strangers. The Volt's low stance and swoopy design, though, had you lowering your head and crouching your body to enter and exit, especially if you were on the tall side. The Volt's interior is also very cozy and that's for both rows since the car is a true four-seater. Once you get moving, the Chevrolet Volt behaves like a typical car, albeit a very quiet one. Interior sound is luxury-level silence, most coming from the road and, at highway speeds, the wind. The Volt's electric drivetrain didn't make a sound, and the switch from pure battery to gas engine recharging the spent battery was flawless. We did hear a slight humming noise when the gas engine was on, but you really had to be paying attention to catch it. "You'd have to keep conversation with your fellow passengers minimal, thoughto catch the transition, something we rarely see happening especially with the Volt's excellent audio system."
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The Chevrolet Volt is promoted heavily as a city car with long distance travel ability, and it shows. We had no problems getting up to speed at highway onramps. Like all electric vehicles, the Volt had near instantaneous access to low end acceleration, or torque, and could easily pass slower vehicles or zip into that open spot in traffic. We don't see most owners performing such moves on a regular basis, though. On the one hand, the Chevy Volt feels very planted to the road, most likely due to the heavy batteries running underneath the vehicle. On the other hand, GM tuned the Chevrolet Volt's suspension to the softer side, which meant we found the Volt felt floaty on all but the smoothest roads. The Volt's electric steering also felt "numb", or disconnected from the wheels which reduced confidence in making "Fast and Furious" maneuvers. Kidding aside, the Volt felt overall like a luxurious and serene cruiser no matter the traffic conditions.
So what about the fuel economy? Not surprisingly, we found the Chevrolet Volt worked best when you kept the battery fully charged as much as possible and stayed within its 40 mile range. During the weekend, we never used a single drop of gas while driving around the city of Orange and its adjacent cities. That's a substantial fuel savings when premium fuel is hovering around $4 a gallon. Yet the Volt's fuel economy remained high even when we didn't recharge the battery. Our Chevrolet Volt got the equivalent of 74 mpg with aggressive driving and not recharging the battery via outlet for several days. We calculated we spent roughly $1 a day when we did recharge the Volt's battery via outlet.
The Grocery Run
The 2012 Chevrolet Volt is classified as a hatchback, so you'd immediately think it has the tall storage capacity like the Nissan Leaf, its nearest competitor. Unfortunately, one quick look of the Volt's swooping backside or opening its liftgate will dissuade you of such thoughts. Still, the Volt's trunk space is deep and can easily handle hauling the weekly groceries, large luggage, or even a folded stroller. The rear two seats drop 60/40 to further expand the floor space, though it's not a flat surface. Packrats take note: don't use the Volt's trunk as yet another storage unit for your stuff since the charger unit and tire repair kit is located under the floor panel.
Speaking of the second row, children will be fine in the Volt's second row as long as there are only two of them. As mentioned above, the Chevy Volt is a four-seater, with rear seating split by the T-shaped battery. The rear row is even cozier than up front, so don't be surprised when you see death glares in the rearview mirror from your rear seat passengers. And they will block your rear view. While we had no problems seeing forward in the Volt thanks to the expansive and swooping windshield, we found the aerodynamic side mirrors on the small side. Rear visibility was also compromised, just like in a Prius, by a large horizon strip on the hatch door blocking much of the view via the rearview mirror.
But the biggest irritant we found with the Chevy Volt was driving up and down inclines. The Volt is so low to the ground that the front bumper would constantly scrape all but the flattest driveways even at slow speed. A rubber skirt served to protect the underside (and improve aerodynamics), but we could see it being one of the first items to replace due to the constant wear-and-tear. In fact, our sister publication experienced that exact problem with its long-term Chevy Volt.
The Weekend Fun
Americans like options, especially when said options allow them to save money. The Chevrolet Volt's powertrain gave us exactly that flexibility during our weeklong drive. Driving around Los Angeles or Orange County, the Volt relied solely on battery power just like any electric car. General Motors promotes the Volt as the perfect vehicle for the urban dweller whose daily drives are within 20-30 miles roundtrip.
However, want to take a jaunt to another city or go out of state? Not a problem with the Volt, which simply recharged the battery via the gasoline engine. Forget to recharge the battery that night or don't want to take several hours doing so? Again, not a problem with the Chevy Volt. During the weekend, we were able to fully recharge the Volt's battery at a Chevy dealership for free while we whiled away the 3-4 hours at nearby shops. The next day, we recharged over half the spent batteries at a friend's house while watching a game. The cost was a six pack of beer. Thus, our Volt never dipped into its gas tank during that time. We didn't plug in the Volt that evening for a full charge, but that was not a problem as we drove in to work, the Volt seamlessly switching on its gas engine. It barely used a gallon when we arrived at the office parking lot.
Note this flexibility extends to using the Volt's infotainment system and, especially, climate control. Such systems drain precious power from all electric vehicles' batteries. Again, that was not an issue with the Volt. Our point is the Volt and its range-extending engine let us decide how far we want to drive or even how much we want to spend on such trips. The price of fully charging the Volt's battery is a third, if not less, than a gallon of fuel, which adds up in savings in a week, a month, and a year.
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Electric powertrains such as those found in the Mitsubishi i, Nissan Leaf, and the upcoming Toyota RAV4 EV will have a future on America's highways. However, until their advanced electric powertrains match the range of conventional gas-powered vehicles, or have a faster recharge rate (preferably both), EV adoption by most Americans will be agonizingly slow especially as a primary vehicle. We now see how GM's Chevrolet Volt is one possible solution to answer EVs' limitations and even more impressed how the Volt drove like a regular car (though a quiet one).
The issue, then, is price, not technology. Though the Chevrolet Volt currently has no direct competitor (i.e., has a range-extender engine), there's no shortage of fuel-efficient vehicles, many which cost tens of thousands less. GM even offers several such vehicles like the Chevrolet Cruze ECO. Early adopters and those with the knowledge and/or foresight to what the Volt represents are willing to pay the cost for such technology. But until the Volt's pricing drops or the powertrain is found in other popular vehicles like crossovers (again, preferably both), we don't see the Volt breaking out of its niche among Chevrolet's lineup.
EPA City: 35 mpg/95 mpge
EPA Highway: 40 mpg/93 mpge
EPA Combined: 37 mpg/94 mpge
Estimated Combined Range: 34.4 mpg/874.2 mpge
Intellichoice Cost of Ownership: Not yet rated
For the limited time I drove the Volt, I can say I was positively surprised. It feels like a real, normal car, which I think is the best compliment it could ever receive. The brakes don't have that mushy feel that generally comes with regenerative brakes; it was firm, dare I say sporty. The Volt is to plug-ins what the Mitsubishi Evo is to sport compacts. Sure, the interior isn't great, but it's acceptable. But the real magic you get for your $40k is all under the hood. It's fantastic technology. -- Jacob Brown, Assistant Editor
The Volt offers sleek styling inside and out, and if your commute is short, you'll see real mpg benefits. Constant charging, and the fuss with the plug are a daily hassle. -- Matthew Askari, Assistant Editor
After logging only a few miles in the Volt, I could see what all the hype was about. When the battery is fully-charged, the hybrid hatchback offers up strong acceleration and a comfortable ride while still delivering fuel economy figures that'll make you smile. However, when the battery is running low on juice, the Volt begins to feel heavy and sluggish. -- Trevor Dorchies, Assistant Editor
If the Volt could seat five, I'd buy one. -Keith Buglewicz, News Director