- Electric power for daily use
- Gasoline backup for longer trips
- Range anxiety evaporates
- Only four seats
- Awkward, slabby styling
- Premium gas recommended
The 2015 Chevrolet Volt remains the only range-extended electric car, and Chevy hasn't done a good job of explaining it, but if you can live with four seats, it's smooth, quiet, comfortable--and one way into the future of cars.
The 2015 Chevrolet Volt has now officially entered lame-duck territory, with specifications, trim levels, and even prices announced for its all-new 2016 successor--which will go on sale in the autumn of this year. And that potentially makes the outgoing 2015 Volt an attractive proposition, given the discounts likely to be used to sell down the remaining inventory.
Along with the battery-electric Nissan Leaf, the Chevy Volt pioneered the market for modern plug-in volume cars back in December 2010. It hasn't changed much since then; it remains the sole plug-in electric car from General Motors that's built in high volumes. It's a compact five-door hatchback with four seats that offers 35 to 40 miles of all-electric range. That distance covers the daily travel for four-fifths of all U.S. cars, meaning a Volt used for commuting may not switch on its gasoline engine for weeks at a time. But unlike plug-in hybrids from Ford, Honda, Hyundai, and Toyota, the Volt never switches on its engine to assist the electric motor while there's still energy remaining in the battery--which makes for a much nicer driving experience for that first 35 or so miles.
While more Volts have been sold in the U.S. than any other plug-in car--though the Nissan Leaf is catching up fast--that amounts only to about 23,000 cars in each of the last two years. By way of comparison, Chevy sells almost that many Cruze compact sedans each month. Moreover, sales are heavily regional--largely in states and areas with electric-car incentives, including California--and the Volt remains a rarity in other regions.
GM says that Volt owners cover about two-thirds of all of their miles and fully 80 percent of their commute travel on grid electricity used to charge the battery. Still, at $35,000, the Volt remains expensive for a compact car with only four seats. It does, however, have the highest owner satisfaction ratings of any car in the history of General Motors--which indicates promise for the future as battery costs fall and GM launches a second-generation model.
These factors--daily distance, driving cycle, what's electric and what's not--have all contributed to continuing confusion over the Volt and how it works. And GM's marketing staff have struggled to explain it to the many potential buyers simply don't "get" the Volt. And if those buyers have never met an actual Volt owner, they may also not understand why those owners would be so astoundingly passionate about it. Often dealers make no effort to help them along.
The shape of the 2015 Chevrolet Volt remains the same: It's a squat, slab-sided five-door hatchback with a high tail and relatively small side windows. The tailgate is almost horizontal and, like that of the Toyota Prius hybrid whose proportions it somewhat echoes, has a pair of windows: one long but almost horizontal, the other small but vertical to increase rearward visibility. Inside, the four seats are well-bolstered but low to the floor, meaning occupants sit deep inside the car and peer out through the narrow windows. The Volt's center console is finished in high-gloss plastic and offers an array of touch-sensitive switches that felt advanced in 2011 but could use some rethinking by now.
It's what's under the hood that makes the Volt special, of course. The 2015 Volt remains one of a pair of GM vehicles using the Voltec range-extended electric powertrain (the other is the very low-volume Cadillac ELR coupe). Using a gasoline engine as a backup for longer distances makes the Volt different a battery-electric car that can only be "refueled" by plugging it in to recharge--closer to that of a hybrid. And while its 38 miles of rated electric range may seem very low, it's enough for almost 80 percent of the journeys made by U.S. vehicles. For the rest, the engine gives unlimited range at the cost of a 10-minute fill-up. But Volt owners report that they cover 65 to 80 percent of their total miles on grid electricity--and, on average, visit the gas station every 900 miles, or just once a month.
The Volt's lithium-ion battery pack, shaped like a giant T, is mounted in the large tunnel between the front seats and extends underneath the rear seats. For 2015, it holds incrementally more energy--17.1 kilowatt-hours--than last year's 16.5 kWh. While its EPA-rated range of 38 miles remains the same, owners may find it can go slightly further on battery power in real-world use than the 2014 model. Once that range depletes the battery, the 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine switches on to power a generator that produces more electricity to keep the Volt going for another 250-plus miles.
But unlike plug-in hybrids, the range-extended electric Volt's battery must be depleted before the engine turns on--its electric motor is powerful enough to run the car under any circumstances until then. That contrasts to plug-in hybrids--including the Ford C-Max and Fusion Energi models and the plug-in Toyota Prius--which turn on their engines under maximum acceleration regardless of battery state.
This setup is also known as a "series hybrid," though in the Volt's case there's an asterisk: Once the engine has switched on, under some high-speed conditions, it can be clutched directly into the transmission to provide torque to assist the electric motor. At high speeds, the car calculates the most energy-efficient way to propel itself--and that may be using the engine to assist the electric motor driving the front wheels. Either way, the Volt's rated fuel economy running on gasoline is 37 mpg combined. While not quite as good as the Prius hybrid's 50 mpg, that's better than the Chevy Cruze that sits next to the Volt on showroom floors.
Meanwhile, a Volt can be plugged in for 8 to 10 hours to recharge its battery on standard 120-Volt household current. If you use a 240-Volt Level 2 charging station, it takes about half that time.
On the road, a Volt accelerates briskly (and quietly), rides and drives well, copes with corners adeptly due to the low position of the heavy battery pack. The electric power delivery is seamless, with no steps as the transmission shifts, and like any electric car, the Volt is quiet on the road, with tire and wind noise more apparent when engine noise is absent.
The 2015 Chevy Volt remains at a base price of $35,000, including the mandatory delivery fee. Accessories can take the bottom-line total over the $40,000 mark. It's eligible 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. Those Volts sold in California and New York carry a special emissions package that qualifies them for permits that allow their drivers to use carpool lanes with only a single occupant--a very valuable privilege during California's epic rush-hour traffic.
Volt shoppers may consider the Toyota Prius and its plug-in model. Chevy has said in the past that the Prius was the most commonly traded-in car for a new Volt. There is also the all-electric Nissan Leaf, whose sales are surging after two years of U.S. production, as well as Ford's pair of C-Max and Fusion Energi plug-in hybrids. The Chevy Volt has the highest customer satisfaction rate of any car GM has ever built. More important yet for GM is that a majority of Volt buyers are new to the Chevrolet brand--a huge win for its highest-volume brand.
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.