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Now in its fourth model year, the 2014 Chevrolet Volt is commonplace in some locales, and a rare bird indeed in others. In part, that's because even after that time on the market, there's huge confusion about how the first plug-in car from General Motors since the EV1 15 years ago actually functions. Blame it on bad marketing, a brand-new powertrain concept, and a fair amount of bad reporting, but most car buyers simply don't "get" the Volt--or why its owners would be so astoundingly passionate about it.
The Volt is a range-extended electric car--a vehicle that drivers can plug in and driver electrically for 30 to 40 miles, with the security of a gasoline range extender as a backup for longer distances, is different to the idea of a battery-electric car--closer to that of a hybrid. While that electric range seems remarkably low, it's actually enough for about 80 percent of the journeys made by vehicles in the U.S. For the rest, there's that engine. Indeed, Volt owners report that they cover 65 to 80 percent of their total miles on grid electricity--and only visit gas stations once a month on average.
The Volt and the battery-electric Nissan Leaf pioneered the market for modern plug-in volume cars back in December 2010. But despite a whopping $5,000 cut in the sticker price this year, Volt sales have been flat over the past two years, as more and more cars with plugs enter the market. It's looking like that the Volt will be updated for the 2016 model year, with an unveiling come to at next January's Detroit Auto Show.
For 2014, the sole changes to the Chevy Volt range-extended electric hatchback are a leather-wrapped steering wheel and two new paint colors. The biggest change is the price, now $34,995 (before incentives, but including the mandatory delivery fee). The reduction simply keeps the car within range of new lower prices now offered by many other plug-in vehicles.
The Volt's five-door hatchback styling is an acquired taste; it shares some understructure with the Cruze compact sedan, but its roof is 4 inches lower, to reduce aerodynamic drag. As a result, it's slab-sided, with small side windows and a Prius-like tailgate whose main rear window is almost horizontal. Inside, it seats four in deeply bucketed seats that are low to the floor, putting the bottom of the side windows almost at neck height for some drivers.
The production car is nothing like the concept design shown, to a rapturous reception, at the 2007 Detroit Auto Show. It was longer, leaner, more Camaro-like--and, rumor had it, more aerodynamic running in reverse than forward. The resulting car is smaller, chunkier, and far, far more wind-resistant--all in the service of saving precious electrons by minimizing energy use, especially at speed. The blanked-off front "grille" directs air turbulence around the car, and when the engine switches on, its exhaust exits under the car--underscoring the car's primary electric drive, there's no exhaust-pipe outlet at the rear.
The interior is a more futuristic version of the classic Chevy twin-cockpit design, with glossy white plastic offered as one of the dash surface treatments, just like an iPod of old. The graphics on the displays are good, and users can configure the operating information the car delivers both to the center display and the display that replaces old-style gauges in a cluster behind the steering wheel.
The Volt's powertrain setup is known either as a range-extended electric or a "series hybrid," though in the Volt's case there's an asterisk: Under some high-speed conditions, the engine can be clutched directly into the transmission to provide torque to assist the electric motor. Drivers will never know that's happening, however; because the main drive is electric, there are no gear changes, just smooth, quiet torque. And unlike pure battery-electric cars like the Nissan Leaf or even the Tesla Model S, the Volt can be driven all the way across the country if you want, just by filling up the gas tank for 10 minutes every 300 or so miles.
Chevy marketers tend to recite over and over that more than 75 percent of U.S. vehicles cover less than 40 miles per day. That means that owners who drive less than that each day and recharge their Volts at night may not burn a drop of gasoline for months on end. Indeed, GM says that 62 percent of the hundreds of millions of miles covered by Volts since December 2010 were powered by grid electricity--and that the average Volt owner goes 900 miles and about a month between visits to the gas station.
GM's most technologically advanced car can be plugged into the electric grid to recharge its 16-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack, which takes about 8 or 9 hours at 110 Volts and about half that using a 240-Volt, Level 2 charging station. The battery provides electricity to run the motor that actually turns the front wheels. When it's depleted (after an EPA-rated electric range of 38 miles), a 1.4-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine switches on to generate more electricity to keep it going for another 250-plus miles.
The most important information is battery state of charge, the remaining range on electricity and on gasoline, and various other running statistics. The "effective" combined gas mileage maxes out at 250 mpg, though, much to the dismay of Volt drivers who compete to see who can use the least gasoline to cover the most miles.
On the road, you won't question whether the Volt is a real car. It accelerates briskly (and quietly), rides and drives well, copes with corners adeptly due to the low position of the heavy battery pack, and offers both standard features and accessories that you'd expect in any car. And this year, it's a slightly better value than it was at a price $5,000 higher.
Volts sold in California and New York are equipped with a special emissions package that allows them to qualify for stickers in those states that permit drivers to use the High-Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) or carpool lane with just a single occupant. During epic California rush hours, that's a very valuable privilege.
The 2014 Chevy Volt is priced at $34,995, and qualifies for a $7,500 Federal tax credit and a variety of state, local, and corporate incentives as well--including state purchase rebates of $2,500 in California or $5,000 in Georgia. With incentives and the price reduction, a Volt is now squarely comparable to the Toyota Prius hybrid, its new plug-in variant, or any of the other plug-in hybrids from Ford and Honda as well.
Every buyer will need to calculate payback for the specific circumstances, including lower cost of electricity. That averages 12 cents per kWh nationwide, but can be as low as 3 cents or as high as 25 cents depending on location. Running the Volt on grid power generally costs one-fifth to one-third as much per mile as running a conventional car on gasoline.
Volt shoppers are likely to consider the Prius and its plug-in model as well, and indeed Chevy notes that the Prius is the most commonly traded-in car for a new Volt. There is also the Nissan Leaf, which got a price cut last year as manufacturing shifted to the U.S, aand Ford's pair of C-Max and Fusion Energi plug-in hybrids.
But meet a group of Volt owners and they may just succeed in selling you one. The Chevy Volt has the highest customer satisfaction rate of any car GM has ever built, and a majority of Volt buyers are new to the Chevrolet brand--a huge win for GM. In the end, the Volt is perhaps the nicest and most sophisticated of the half-dozen plug-in cars that also have engines to give them unlimited range. And it's a much better value this year than it was last year. Score one for General Motors.
- Electric drive without range anxiety
- Good roadholding, silent running
- GM's most modern interior design
- Absolutely a "real car"
- Price cut makes it a better value
Next: Interior / Exterior »
- Slab-sided styling awkward in places
- Federal incentive only on tax return
- Recommends premium gasoline
- Fuel efficiency "only" 37 mpg
- Chevy marketing misses the mark