New & Used Chevrolet Volt: In Depth
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Now in its second generation, the Chevrolet Volt is the sole high-volume range-extended electric car in the world. That means it's an electric car for its battery range--from 35 to 53 miles, depending on model year--and then switches into a hybrid mode where a gasoline engine and its electric motors jointly power the car, rather like a Toyota Prius.
That has proven to be a tougher concept to market than GM expected, but the Volt has delivered a whole crop of new owners who would never have considered a Chevy before. The smooth, quiet, and brisk driving experience attracts buyers from expensive German imports, because this is the first Chevy in decades to be at the cutting edge of future technology. It's also the GM car with the highest-ever owner satisfaction ratings in the history of the brand.
The first-generation Volt ran from the 2011 to 2015 model years, and an all-new version--sleeker, quieter, faster, and with a much longer electric range--was introduced for 2016. That version will go on sale in 11 states during the fall of 2015, and the rest of the country will get the new Volt early in 2016 after an abbreviated model year.
The second-generation Volt uses an 18.4-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack that gives a stellar EPA rating of 53 miles of electric range, about one-third more than the 38-mile rating for 2013-2015 Volts. That range will let Volt owners cover nine of every 10 trips solely on grid power, Chevy says, up from about 80 percent previously.
Its range-extending engine is a 1.5-liter four-cylinder model from GM's latest global family of three- and four-cylinder engines. It delivers 101 horsepower at 5600 rpm, and runs on regular (87-octane) gasoline. After the Volt's battery pack has been depleted, the engine generates electricity by turning one of the two motor-generators to flow electricity to the battery pack. Total output from the two motors is 111 kilowatts (149 hp) and a remarkable 294 lb-ft of torque.. An 8.9-gallon fuel tank and the larger battery give a rated range of 430 miles, substantially higher than the last Volt's 340 or so miles.
The styling may be the biggest departure from the outgoing model, with smoothed-over, flowing lines taking the place of the somewhat slab-sided and crisp design of the original. The overall Volt 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 2016 Volt retains all of the Volt's strongest attributes while fixing most of the shortcomings of the previous model. Not only does it have that 53-mile electric range, its EPA fuel-efficiency rating when the engine switches on is 42 mpg combined. It's slightly less expensive than last year's Volt, though its starting price before incentives is still more than $30,000.
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. 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 designed as an electric car with a backup generator that happens to run on gasoline. When the “range extender” gasoline engine switched on in the first Volt, it only helped turn the wheels under certain circumstances--though it does so far more often, to maximize efficiency, in the second generation. Plug-in versions of the Toyota Prius, Ford C-Max and Fusion, and Honda Accord, on the other hand, will switch on their engines even if the pack is still charged--something that only happens in the Volt in 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 60 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.
As a result, the Volt alleviates the range anxiety of battery electric cars like the Nissan Leaf, with its new EPA-rated range of 107 miles, or the Ford Focus Electric. And the Volt is considerably less expensive than the new Tesla Model S electric luxury sports sedan. 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.
While the first new Volts are limited to certain states, great deals can be had on previous-generation cars being cleared out. 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--including a $1,500 purchase rebate in the state of California
The first-generation Chevrolet Volt didn't change much over its five years, though its lithium-ion battery saw 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 last Gen 1 Volt was pretty similar to the 2011 model that launched GM into the business of selling electric cars in volume.
When the first 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 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.