New & Used Chevrolet Volt: In Depth
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The Chevrolet Volt pairs a small gasoline engine to an electric motor. The first generation is now winding down, making way for the fully redone second generation, which arrives for the 2016 model year. The outgoing Volt model is General Motors' first foray into extended-range electric cars.
When the current Volt starts out with a fully charged battery, it can travel an EPA-rated 38 miles on electricity alone; once the battery is nearly exhausted, the gasoline-powered generator kicks in to recharge it, extending the driving range for another 300 miles or more. After that, occasional stops at a gas pump can extend the range even farther.
The blending of electric motors and gas engine has been optimized around GM research that says four-fifths of U.S. cars travel less than 40 miles a day. If you use the Volt that way and recharge it overnight, you may go weeks without the engine ever switching on. But if you need to take a road trip, you can do so without the fear of running out of juice. And even those relying on battery power alone will hear the engine start up from time to time, which is the system's way of making sure everything's okay and ensuring that the fuel in the tank doesn't go stale. Volt owners who recharge regularly average almost 1,000 miles between visits to the gas station, which happen less than once a month.
The Volt is now in its fifth model year, and it hasn't changed much over that time. Its electric motor still powers the front wheels, the gasoline engine hasn't changed much, and the lithium-ion battery has seen two small increases in capacity. Other than some trim changes, and the roof and tailgate now painted in body color rather than glossy black, the Volt today is pretty similar to the 2011 model that launched GM into the business of selling electric cars in volume.
The Volt is one of just two so-called series hybrids--vehicles that use a gasoline engine not to drive the wheels, but to power a generator--on the market today. The other is its cousin, built in the same Michigan plant, the Cadillac ELR luxury electric coupe.
With the Volt, Chevy is delivering a whole crop of new owners to GM, many of whom have bought a Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid in its place. The Volt's smooth, quiet, and brisk driving experience is attracting buyers who trade in expensive German imports, because this is the first Chevy in decades to be at the cutting edge of future technology. It's also the Chevy with the highest owner satisfaction ratings in the history of the brand.
Unlike plug-in hybrids--from Toyota, Ford, and others--the Volt is solely powered by electricity, even if the engine is on. It's designed as an electric car with a backup generator that happens to run on gasoline. When the “range extender” gasoline engine switches on, it doesn’t turn the wheels mechanically (with one specialized exception). Plug-in versions of the Toyota Prius, Ford C-Max and Fusion, and Honda Accord, on the other hand, have lower electric ranges (6 to 19 miles) but run mostly on gasoline. And, their engines will switch on even if the pack is still charged--something that happens in the Volt only during the coldest weather.
Chevy brought the term "range anxiety" to the forefront when it began marketing the Volt, pointing out that, unlike with pure electric vehicles, there is no worry that a Volt driver is going to get stuck somewhere without juice. The Volt can run 30 to 40 miles on battery power alone, at which point it switches on its engine-generator to provide additional power, for unlimited mileage as long as there's a supply of gasoline. The EPA rates the Volt's electric range at 38 miles, although that can depend heavily on the type of driving and weather conditions.
As a result, the Volt alleviates the range anxiety of battery electric cars like the Nissan Leaf, with its EPA-rated range of 73 miles, or the Ford Focus Electric. And the Volt is considerably less expensive than the new Tesla Model S electric luxury sports sedan, which starts at prices $17,500 higher and can reach $100,000 for top-end models.
That means that the Volt's unique drivetrain makes it drive just like a “normal car"--absent all the rising and falling noises of a transmission shifting--and like most electric cars, it provides continuous brisk acceleration from stops.
The Volt's 38 miles of electric range is delivered by a lithium-ion battery pack located in the tunnel between the front seats and below the two rear seats. After the pack is depleted, the car seamlessly switches on its 1.4-liter gasoline engine, which generates electricity to power the electric motor that actually drives the front wheels.
In 2013, Chevy slightly increased the energy capacity of the lithium-ion battery pack, from the original 16 kilowatt-hours to 16.5 kWh, and the usable portion of that energy from 10.3 to 10.8 kWh. That boosted the Volt's EPA-rated electric range from 35 to 38 miles, and it raised the 2013 Volt's efficiency rating from 94 to 98 MPGe, or "miles per gallon equivalent'--the distance the car can travel electrically on the amount of energy contained in a single gallon of gasoline. For 2015, the battery capacity rose again--though this time the ratings stayed the same.
But in a Chevy Volt, "your mileage may vary"--and sometimes drastically so--only the variance mostly applies to the electric range. The EPA also pegs the Volt's efficiency when running on gasoline at 37 mpg. Any individual owner's blended gas mileage (running on both grid electricity and gasoline) depends entirely on how often that Volt is plugged in to recharge. Owners who plug in regularly and travel less than 40 miles for weeks on end record mileage figures of 250 mpg (the highest the car's display allows).
The message: Take all “gas mileage” figures for the Volt with a large grain of salt, but know that they'll always be roughly 35 mpg or better--and some owners will be able to get blended "fuel economy" of up to almost infinity.
The EPA assigns the Volt a rating of 98 MPGe, or miles-per-gallon-equivalent, over a standard test cycle that blends both pure electric and range-extending gasoline modes. ("Miles Per Gallon Equivalent" is the measure of energy efficiency that represents how far the car will travel electrically on the same amount of stored battery energy as is contained in a single gallon of gasoline.)
GM has taken criticism for the Volt's unadventurous exterior styling, but the interior is more up to date, with an Apple-like feel to its glossy plastic control panel. Packaging is another area of concern for some: The Volt's lithium-ion battery pack sits in the tunnel between the seats and under the rear seat. The car holds four people and some luggage comfortably, but has less interior space than Chevy's similarly-sized Cruze compact four-door sedan.
The options list of the Volt has gradually expanded over the years, although 2011 models came with a richer selection of standard equipment than did the 2012s. No sunroof is offered, and there are limited color and wheel options. A low-energy Bose audio system is available, along with a navigation system, leather upholstery, and a selection of interior graphic treatments and finishes.
Mounted under the load floor of every Volt is a charging adapter that hooks the car up to a standard 120-Volt home outlet. Using this charging method, the battery takes between 7 and 10 hours to top up a depleted battery. Level 2 charging is also available at public sites and can be installed in a user's garage or parking spot at home or work, with costs usually no higher than $2,000; this method cuts charging time to around 4 hours.
Chevy Volt prices start at $34,995, including delivery, and can reach more than $45,000 with a full set of options. Most buyers will be eligible for a $7,500 Federal tax credit for the purchase of a plug-in car, and there are various state, regional, and corporate incentives--both financial and perks like solo access to California's High-Occupancy Vehicle lane.
The Next Volt
GM showed the 2016 Chevy Volt at the 2015 Detroit auto show. The styling may be the biggest departure from the current model, with smoothed-over, flowing lines taking the place of the somewhat slab-sided and crisp design of the original. The overall silhouette stays relatively similar, ensuring continued aerodynamic slipperiness that's needed to achieve big fuel-economy numbers, although with the softer curves the drag-reducing rear slope is much better integrated and even attractive now. The next Volt will use a 1.5-liter generator engine, larger than today's, and two smaller electric motors will replace the previous Voltec system's single motor. The battery's capacity will not increase, but the battery itself has been reengineered to be lighter and sit lower, while range should improve as a result of other system changes. The new model is expected to reach 41 mpg combined in range-extended mode, an improvement over the first-gen car. GM will release more details on the new Volt as it gets closer to market.
In the meantime, great deals can be had on first-generation Volts that dealers need to clear out before the new model launches. The 2016 model is expected to go on sale in January of next year.