- Electric power for daily use
- Gasoline backup for longer trips
- Range anxiety evaporates
- Excellent display graphics
- Quiet running, smooth riding
- Only four seats
- Awkward, slabby styling
- Premium gas recommended
- 37 mpg lower than Prius
- Chevy marketing can't explain it
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.
2015 Chevrolet Volt
The 2014 Chevy Volt's shape is all about cheating the wind, but not appealing to all; the high-tech interior can come across as gimmicky.
While the lines of the 2015 Chevy Volt are now familiar in coastal areas receptive to plug-in electric cars, they're still a rare sight in parts of the nation's heartland where pickup trucks dominate and long-distance drives are routinely covered in three-ton gasoline- or diesel-fueled vehicles.
The lines of the Volt are chunky, with a low roof, a high cowl, a high tail with a blunt back end, and slab sides--all in the service of aerodynamics, since reducing wind resistance is paramount in electric cars to reduce energy use. The narrow glass openings appear taller due to glossy black trim panels on the doors just below the windows, a visual trick that gives the impression of larger windows--especially on light-colored Volts.
The front of the Volt carries a front "grille" with textured silver blanking plates whose function is to direct air turbulence around the car. Like the well-known shape of the Toyota Prius, the Volt has a vertical second glass panel in its long, high tailgate, to improve rear visibility. There's no visible exhaust pipe at the rear, either; when the engine switches on, its exhaust exits under the car--underscoring the car's primary electric drive.
The production Volt has little resemblance to the concept car shown in 2007 (which proved to produce less aerodynamic drag running backwards than forward), and some of its lines are based on reusing parts of the structure of other GM compact vehicles like the Cruze compact sedan. But the Volt's lines are unique, and distinctive. Starting in 2013, the liftgate and roof panels were painted in body color, rather than the previous black--making the Volt less distinctive in our eyes. A range of alloy wheels offers options for dressing up the car's look.
When it was launched in 2010, the Volt's interior was the most futuristic interpretation of the classic Chevrolet twin-cockpit interior design. One dash treatment offered glossy white plastic, just like an iPod of the day. Interior trims can be mixed and matched with graphic panels and a variety of upholstery options in a very un-Chevy-like way. The standard cloth upholstery can be replaced by leather, complete with suede inserts, in a number of different colors.
The capacitive touch switches on the console were avant-garde then, but they're less so today and require some practice before the driver knows exactly the right touch for them. The Volt continues to have some of the very best information-display graphics of any electric vehicle, though.
Even after four years, no one has quite matched the clarity and intuitive nature of the Volt's graphic displays of vehicle information (also used in almost identical form on the Spark EV). Ford's hybrids and plug-in hybrids come close, but Chevy's are just that much better. 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.
2015 Chevrolet Volt
The 2015 Chevy Volt surprises novices with its smooth, quiet electric power--even when the range-extending engine comes on
Those drivers who've never experienced an electric car will be pleasantly surprised by the 2015 Chevy Volt. Banish any thoughts of electric golf carts or the sometimes anemic performance of a Toyota Prius hybrid. Because electric motors produce their maximum torque from a standstill and have no power peak like a gasoline engine, the Volt delivers its power in a smooth and seamless flow, and its best acceleration comes from 0 to 40 mph. While the car isn't a speed demon--its 0-to-60-mph acceleration takes a bit less than 9 seconds--the Volt will startle many other cars from a standing stop. Top speed is electronically limited to 100 mph.
For 2015, the Volt's lithium-ion battery pack got a slight boost in capacity, from 16.5 kilowatt-hours last year to 17.1 kWh today. Only about two-thirds of that capacity actually powers the vehicle, meaning that Chevy offers a substantial margin for battery degradation over a long vehicle life. The EPA ratings for the 2015 Volt remain the same: 38 miles of electric range, and 37 miles per gallon combined when running in range-extending mode with the engine on. In the real world, though, drivers may see an extra mile or two of range over an otherwise-identical 2014 Volt running the same route.
Chevrolet's marketers for the Volt tend to recite over and over that more than 75 percent of U.S. vehicles cover less than 40 miles per day. In practice, owners who drive 40 miles or less each day and recharge their Volts every night may not burn a drop of gasoline for months on end. Of the hundreds of millions of miles covered by Volts since December 2010, GM says 62 percent were powered by grid electricity--and that the average Volt owner goes about a month and 900 miles between visits to the gas station.
The front wheels of the 2015 Volt are powered by a 111-kilowatt (149-horsepower) electric motor. When the battery is depleted after 35 or 40 miles, the Volt's 1.4-liter four-cylinder range-extending engine switches on, to power a 54-kW generator that produces electricity. That electricity continues to run the electric motor that powers the car.
If you're not watching the energy display in the instrument cluster, you may not even notice the engine switching on--it's that quiet and well insulated. You'll only hear it under maximum load, when it speeds up to its maximum revs. But engine speed is disconnected from the road speed, so from the driver's seat, the Volt always runs as an electric vehicle--regardless of whether the electricity comes from the battery or the range extender.
In its standard state, a Volt operates just like a regular car with an automatic transmission. That includes idle creep at intersections. Experienced electric-car drivers who like "single pedal" driving with more aggressive regenerative braking can pull the drive selector back to a "Low" mode that boosts regen to the point where lifting off the accelerator produces noticeable slowing--and friction braking is needed much less. Those who want to mimic the driving experience of a Tesla can keep the car in Low and then push the Sport mode button, which provides peppier acceleration at the cost of a bit of range.
Two other powertrain control settings are Mountain Mode--which recharges the battery more aggressively and increases regenerative braking for best performance on hilly routes--and a Hold Drive button that conserves battery charge for later usage and switches on range-extending mode for primary power.
While it's a heavy car for its size, the Volt has its weight mounted low in the car. That gives it good roadholding and flat cornering. The electric power steering, suspension, and braking--both friction and regenerative--all are well integrated.
2015 Chevrolet Volt
Comfort & Quality
The 2015 Chevy Volt only fits four people--which compromises its utility despite the smooth ride, good handling, and quiet interior.
The four seats of the 2015 Chevy Volt are mounted low, but the especially in front, they're well-shaped and comfortable over long distances--though you'll have to get used to adjusting them manually in a $35,000 car. The high and wide center tunnel eliminates any chance of a fifth passenger in the rear; it contains the battery, which continues underneath the two individual rear seats. The seats can be tight for four tall adults, but longer trips show off the Volt's pleasantly quiet cabin, its good roadholding and smooth surge of acceleration, and the superb graphics used for its various information and accessory displays.
To get a Volt on the road, you press the blue power button with the computer "on" symbol on its face. The car boots itself up, silently, with only a multi-tone chime and some background humming to indicate that it's ready to roll. Put the selector in Drive and move out silently, with no rising engine noise. As speed rises, wind noise and tire roar become more audible--because there are no engine or transmission noises to mask those frequencies. GM engineers developed special types of noise insulation to minimize those sounds, though the steady low roar from the low-rolling-resistance tires will be always with you at speed.
As long as you're on battery power, even full acceleration is delivered in silence. When the range-extending gasoline engine switches on after that, the car buffers the power demand through the battery--so only when you need sustained maximum power does it rise to the top of its rev range and stay there. Drivers new to electric cars might not even know they're driving one, but they'd certainly think they're in a remarkably quiet conventional car.
A variety of interior colors and trim patterns is available, including some remarkably uncharacteristic abstract graphic patterns. The glossy white plastic console that was chic in 2010 because it resembled an iPod of the day is probably one to avoid, though. We prefer the quieter glossy charcoal tone. Cloth upholstery is standard, with leather as an extra-cost option.
Every Volt we've tested has appeared to have superb build quality, without a single squeak or rattle. Early cars suffered some software glitches and occasional frozen displays--just like your computer--but those have long since been rectified. And since it was launched almost five years ago, the Chevrolet Volt has logged the highest owner-satisfaction scores of any GM vehicle that's ever been built. Talk to Volt owners, and you're likely to find them to be cheerful, relentless evangelists for their own cars, the latest new Volt, and the joys of range-extended electric driving in general.
2015 Chevrolet Volt
The 2015 Chevy Volt gets decent crash-test scores, but it now lacks some of the latest electronic safety systems found in other cars of its price.
The 2015 Chevy Volt gets good safety scores from both the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). The IIHS gives the Volt its highest rating of Good on its four longstanding tests, for moderate-overlap front crash, side crash, roof strength, and headrests and seats. On its newest test, for small-overlap crash safety, the Volt scored an IIHS rating of Acceptable--one level below Good--which enabled it to regain the coveted Top Safety Pick designation. It doesn't qualify for Top Safety Pick+, since it lacks automatic-braking capability.
For its part, the NHTSA rates the Volt at five stars, its highest rank, for overall, side crash, and rollover safety. It gets four stars for frontal crash.
The 2015 Volt lacks some of the latest generation of electronic safety systems, however, that are showing up in cars priced at $35,000 and higher. While Chevy added forward collision warnings and lane-departure warnings to the standard electronic stability and traction control systems in 2013, the Volt does not offer radar-based adaptive cruise control or blind-spot monitoring.
A 2011 media frenzy about a fire in a Volt several days after it was destroyed in a crash test is now long forgotten, as is the Congressional hearing it spawned. An NHTSA study concluded the circumstances of the fire were very rare, and that the Volt was as safe as any other vehicle. Meanwhile, GM offered a modification to early Volts, although few owners took advantage of it.
The Volt includes a driver-actuated noise generator that pulses the horn rapidly to warn pedestrians of the silent electric car's approach. It's best described as a chirping sound; drivers trigger it by pulling back on the turn-signal lever. (First-time Volt drivers often find themselves using it when they mean to flash their high beams.)
All Volts are fitted with GM's OnStar telecommunications system, which comes with three years of free service for Volt owners. For 2015, the communications link has been upgraded to 4G LTE connectivity as an option. The 2015 Volt comes with eight airbags: front and side airbags are joined by knee bolsters and side air curtains that stretch the length of the passenger compartment.
2015 Chevrolet Volt
The price of a 2015 Chevy Volt, starting at $35K, seems high for a four-seat compact--and options can add up quickly.
While the 2015 Chevy Volt has a few features not offered on conventional cars its size--and of course the range-extended electric powertrain--its equipment is less impressive now than when it was launched in 2011. Automatic climate control, remote starting, keyless entry with proximity sensing, and a tilting and telescoping steering wheel are offered on many compact cars. Most still don't have smartphone apps that let owners monitor the car's operation from afar, either.
For 2015, the Volt gets one minor upgrade (the addition of optional 4G LTE connectivity) as well as a marginally larger-capacity battery pack. But the $35,000 base model of the Volt includes neither navigation nor a particularly good audio system--it's simply AM/FM/CD. The DVD/navigation system costs a startling $1,995 extra. Even the energy-efficient Bose audio system--which includes satellite radio, MP3 playback, Bluetooth connectivity, and the ability to show DVDs, plus 30 GB of music storage space on a 60-GB hard drive--adds $495. Other options include quite nice polished alloy wheels and a few special paint colors.
At a $35,000 entry price, the Volt is about twice the cost of the Chevrolet Cruze compact sedan that sits next to it on showroom floors. But the two cars appeal to entirely different buyers: Plug-in electric cars today are aimed today at early adopters and those who buy cars for other reasons than the lowest possible price.
The Volt qualifies for a $7,500 Federal income-tax credit and a variety of state, local, and corporate incentives. In California, where more Volts are sold than in any other state, those include a $2,500 purchase rebate and single-occupant access to the coveted carpool lane at rush hour.
For those worried about battery life, the Volt's lithium-ion battery pack is warranted for eight years or 100,000 miles--but leasing a Volt rather than buying it eliminates that worry entirely. For 2015, the Volt comes with five years or 100,000 miles of roadside assistance. It has bumper-to-bumper coverage for three years/36,000 miles, along with a limited engine warranty of five years/100,000 miles.
2015 Chevrolet Volt
The 2015 Chevy Volt gets 37 mpg even in gasoline mode, higher than most small cars, and two-thirds of Volt miles are covered on grid electricity.
The 2015 Chevy Volt is rated at 38 miles of electric range from its lithium-ion battery pack, unchanged from last year's model. But the slightly larger-capacity battery (17.1 kilowatt-hours vs last year's 16.5 kWh) fitted for 2015 means that drivers may see an extra mile or two of range compared to last year's Volt. While that may not seem like much, aggregated data from thousands of Volts shows that about two-thirds of all miles were covered on battery power recharged from the grid--and only one-third by burning gasoline in the range-extending engine.
When that range extender switches on, the 2015 Volt is rated at 37 miles per gallon combined. That's not as high as the 50-mpg Toyota Prius hybrid, but it still makes the Volt one of the most fuel-efficient cars sold in the U.S.--and it's higher than almost any pure gasoline vehicle except the tiny, tinny Mitsubishi Mirage minicar. In practice, Volts used for commuting distances of less than 40 miles a day may go for weeks without switching on their gasoline range extenders. (The car's engineers had to build in a function so that a Volt will ask the owner's permission to switch on the gasoline engine every few months if it hasn't been used, to circulate liquids and keep the system in good running order.)
The 2015 Volt's efficiency rating is 98 MPGe, or Miles Per Gallon Equivalent. That's a measure of how far a car can travel electrically on the amount of energy that's contained in 1 gallon of gasoline. That rating puts the Volt in the middle of the plug-in pack for efficiency. Several vehicles exceed that number, including the new champ, the BMW i3 battery-electric car at 124 MPGe--but some of them are smaller and offer less performance than the Volt.
Any vehicle that plugs into the electric grid and can run electrically for at least 10 miles gets our highest Green rating of 10. To recharge a Volt takes 7 to 10 hours using standard 120-Volt household power, or about half that with a 240-Volt Level 2 charging station. The dedicated charging station isn't required to use a Volt if reliable overnight charging is possible with the car's standard charging cord, and many Volt owners never bother to install a charging station.
While the price of electricity varies by almost a factor of 10 in different areas of the U.S.--from 3 to 25 cents per kWh--it's virtually always cheaper to drive a mile on grid power than by burning gasoline. And while you may hear people dismiss electric cars as "running on coal," the calculations show that driving a Volt recharged on grid electricity--or any other plug-in car--is always cleaner than a 25-mpg car, and only marginally worse than a 50-mpg Prius hybrid in a handful of states with the very dirtiest coal-based electric grids.