Pros: Zero-emissions potential; 300-plus-mile range; little to no fuel cost; nice roster of amenities; refined styling
Cons: Pricey; poor rear visibility
The world has been obsessed with green technology for the better part of a decade and a half now, and more hybrids – and now electric vehicles – are seen on U.S. roads with each passing year. The newest player on the sustainability front is the long-anticipated Chevrolet Volt, which was finally "greenlit" into production last year.
The well-styled and refined Volt is no ordinary advanced-propulsion vehicle. Contrary to general consensus, this four-door four-seat hatchback is neither a hybrid nor an EV. Rather, it is an amalgam of the two, offering an innovative plug-in gasoline-electric system that’s unique unto itself.
The Volt utilizes both a battery-operated electric motor and a conventional gasoline engine that serves primarily as a generator. With its lithium-ion battery pack fully charged, the Volt will run on pure electric power for 30 to 40 miles. Once the batteries are depleted, the gas-powered engine/generator kicks on to recharge the batteries while it provides on-the-spot electricity to continue running the motor. This operational shift extends the Volt’s range to more than 300 miles, making it a very viable option for any kind of driving application. In a way, its on-board generator replaces the need for such infrastructure, even though there already is an adequate electrical recharging network in the U.S.
In practical terms, if the Volt is driven less than 40 miles (20 miles each way to work, for example) between recharging sessions, the gas generator will never require usage. In that case, the Volt is operating as a pure EV with zero emissions. If the Volt is being driven for more than 40 miles between recharges, then the range-extending four-cylinder engine will be utilized, requiring an occasional trip to the gas station.
For 2012, the Volt now comes standard with remote ignition. GM’s MyLink communications system, which includes Bluetooth streaming audio, is an available option. Other notable additions include a new passive entry system and restyled 17-inch wheels. To achieve a lower base price, the Volt’s navigation system and Bose audio system have been removed from its array of standard equipment and added to the options list.
Harnessing the best of two worlds, the 2012 Chevrolet Volt is a viable and attractive – albeit pricey – solution within the realm of green motoring.
Comfort & Utility
The Volt interior displays a very techno-savvy style. The clean dash is treated with modern-looking white and black accents among its touch-sensitive buttons and controls. The gauges are defined by a pair of LCD screens that display the usual vital signs as well as the flow of energy cycling through the electric-drive system.
The front seats are firm and well contoured but lack any power adjustments, which is a bit of a surprise considering the Volt’s higher-end overall package. The back row is composed of two bucket seats divided by a center console that hides the car’s massive lithium-ion battery beneath it. Head- and legroom are in short supply for both rows. And getting in and out of the back seat takes a little extra effort because of the car’s low-slung roofline.
The rear cargo hold is accessed by way of a convenient hatch, but the storage area is only 10.6 cubic feet. The rear seats fold down to expand this space, but not enough to call the Volt practical.
Standard convenience features for the Volt include remote start, a tilt/telescoping steering wheel, automatic climate control and a touchscreen six-speaker stereo. Notable options include leather upholstery, heated seats and a premium sound system.
On the standard side, the Volt has Bluetooth and USB connectivity. Optional electronics include navigation with a digital music storage component and a premium energy-saving sound system that uses only half the power of conventional car stereos.
Performance & Fuel Economy
The 2012 Chevrolet Volt is propelled by an electric motor making 149 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of torque. This unit is powered by a 16-kWh lithium-ion battery pack stored under the rear seat. The Volt is capable of traveling 30 to 40 miles at speeds of up to 100 miles per hour on pure electric power. As the battery becomes depleted, a gasoline-powered 1.4-liter four-cylinder becomes an alternate power source for the electric motor, giving it a range of more than 300 miles. This engine will also provide some direct power to the wheels at certain speeds.
The Volt’s battery back can be recharged in about ten hours using a standard 120-volt outlet.
As far as efficiency goes, there are two distinct measurements for the Volt. In all-electric mode, the Volt’s fuel economy appears – but is not quite – infinite. Converting the cost of electricity to fuel economy yields an EPA rating of 95 mpg city/93 mpg highway. Exceptional indeed. With the engine working as a generator, fuel economy is estimated to be 35/40 mpg, which puts it in the middle of the pack among traditional hybrids. Final fuel economy will depend on the range the car is being driven.
Occupant protection comes from eight airbags, including two side curtains and two at the driver’s and front passenger’s knees. The Volt is also equipped with ABS, stability control and OnStar emergency telematics.
The most noticeable thing about driving the Chevrolet Volt is its superb off-the-line acceleration. This is a common trait among electric vehicles due to their high torque output. For the same reason, the Volt is an assertive left-lane passer – not to mention fun to drive.
The Volt’s ride is smooth and quiet, especially in all-electric mode. And the change-over to generator mode is quite seamless, preserving a ride that feels refined in all driving conditions.
The Volt’s road manners are nicely balanced. Its well-tuned suspension makes it a capable handler, able to take corners with confidence. Road grip is good, and body roll is minimal. The Volt feels pretty nimble at virtually all speeds.
The only peculiarity is the Volt’s twitchy brake pedal feel, which is mainly attributed to the car’s regenerative braking technology.
Other Cars to Consider
Nissan Leaf – As the first and only mass-produced pure electric car for the U.S., the Leaf delivers a range of 90 to 100 miles plus zero tailpipe emissions. But with that comes a lot of range anxiety. The Leaf does not come close to the Volt’s 350-mile cruising range. And the Volt’s dynamics are skewed in a sportier direction.
Toyota Prius Plug-In – The Prius plug-in offers only one-third of the Volt’s all-electric range. But operating as a normal hybrid, its fuel economy is about 35 percent higher than the Volt’s in gas-generator mode. The Prius is also considerably less expensive and offers quite a bit more cargo space.
The 2012 Chevrolet Volt comes in only one trim level, but it offers multiple stand-alone and packaged options. We recommend two add-ons. One is the rear camera and park assist package, to combat the Volt’s poor rear visibility, and the other is the optional navigation system. Although OnStar offers turn-by-turn directions, it doesn’t compare to the upgraded system’s voice-command touchscreen setup with real-time traffic and a digital music storage device. These enhancements add to the Volt’s already comprehensive list of amenities, making it a very complete package.