Few cars have sparked the interest of automotive journalists the way the 2011 Chevrolet Volt has. Car and Driver's Dave Vanderwerp states, "This is without a doubt the most important new car since the advent of hybrids in the late '90s, and GM has nailed it." The Volt is an electric vehicle (EV) with extended range. After running on battery power alone for roughly 40 miles, a gas-powered engine spins a generator to power the electric traction motor, extending the Volt's range by another 300 miles or so. "Think of this as an electric car, only without the anxiety about cruising range," explains James Riswick at Edmunds.com. "You plug it in when you can, then fill it with gas when you have to."
Reviewers are clearly impressed with the Chevy Volt's style, performance and functionality, but they warn that this electric sedan (it's classified as a subcompact by the Environmental Protection Agency [EPA]) comes at a premium price. Riswick comments, "Altogether, the Volt has a general demeanor of integrity and craftsmanship. It's far sportier than the usual hybrid car, yet it lacks the general refinement you'd expect from something costing $41,000."
The Volt's sticker price can be lessened somewhat by a federal tax credit of up to $7,500 for buying a car that has a least 16 kilowatt-hours of energy stored in a battery pack. Vanderwerp adds, "Do you think it's a coincidence that the Chevrolet Volt's lithium-ion pack contains exactly that amount?"
While no other cars offer the Volt's extended-range EV setup, there are a number of "conventional" hybrid sedans that could be considered Volt competitors. Reviews mention the midsize 2011 Ford Fusion Hybrid (Base MSRP: $28,600) as a worthy alternative with a larger interior, bigger trunk and slightly stronger acceleration than the Volt, but it does not offer plug-in capability. The most obvious and commonly mentioned rival by reviews is the 2011 Toyota Prius (Base MSRP: $21,650 to $28,790). When the Volt is operating in extended-range gas mode, the Prius offers significantly better EPA combined fuel economy of 50 mpg, but a less enjoyable driving experience, most reviews are quick to mention. A plug-in Prius is expected in 2012.
The Volt shares its chassis with the gas-powered compact 2011 Chevrolet Cruze (Base MSRP: $16,275 to $22,225), which actually is a few inches longer and offers more interior space (it seats five, versus the Volt's four). The lightweight, efficiency-optimized Chevrolet Cruze Eco posts a 33 mpg combined EPA rating with the 1.4 turbo and a six-speed manual (30 mpg with the automatic).
The 2011 Chevrolet Volt is driven by a 149-horsepower (111-kW) electric motor that produces 279 pound-feet of torque, even from a standstill. This makes for lively acceleration off the line, although it doesn't maintain the same thrust all the way to highway speeds, testers say. Edmunds.com editors clock the Volt at 9.2 seconds to reach 60 mph in pure electric mode, faster than a Toyota Prius and comparable to other economy cars.
With a fully charged battery, the Volt runs between 25 and 50 miles on electrical power, according to most of the evaluations we read. During testing, Edmunds.com averaged 33 miles before the Volt's 84-horsepower 1.4-liter 4-cylinder engine started automatically, serving as an electricity generator. With the gas engine operating, the 0 to 60 mph time improves to 9 seconds, Edmunds.com says. Editors there explain that under strong acceleration or at speeds above about 70 mph, the gas engine couples itself directly to the electric traction motor for an additional boost of power. For most lower-speed driving, however, the gas engine operates in generator mode.
Charging the Volt's battery takes about 10 hours using normal 120-volt household current. Utilizing a 240-volt charger speeds up the recharge time to four hours. By comparison, the fully electric 2011 Nissan Leaf (Base MSRP: $32,780 to $33,720) needs up to 19 hours to recharge on 120 volts and seven or eight hours with a 240-volt system. The Leaf has an EPA driving range of 73 miles on a full charge, but it's battery-only; there's no range-extending feature.
Occupants are barely aware of changes in Volt's powertrain modes, Motor Trend's Frank Markus says, adding, "The gas engine is so silent that it's hard to tell when it switches on if the radio is playing." Even in the range-extended mode, the engine shuts off when coasting to a stop. The single-speed electric motor delivers its power smoothly and without shifting, adding to a smooth, seamless driving experience, reviewers say.
Joe Wiesenfelder at Cars.com comments, "Another big plus is the Volt's ride quality, which feels pretty rich. It isolates you well from the road, and the car gives a sense of solidity." Edmunds Inside Line agrees, complimenting the Volt's "compliant ride that strikes an appropriate balance between control and softness."
Handling is very good, especially considering the Volt's low-rolling resistance tires and rather heavy curb weight of 3,781 pounds, reviews state consistently. Markus writes, "The Volt is no sports car, but it blows the prototype of Toyota's plug-in Prius away (9.8 seconds to 60 mph), and runs neck and neck with a 2.4-liter Malibu in acceleration and handling tests." Motor Trend testing clocks the Volt at 0 to 60 mph in 8.8 seconds on full electric power/8.7 seconds in gas-powered mode.
The four-wheel disc brakes also provide a regenerative function to channel some energy back into the batteries while stopping. But, like many hybrid cars, the regenerative brakes have an unnatural feel, some critics say. Car and Driver's Vanderwerp explains, "At low speeds and during near-limit applications, the brakes can feel disconnected and very nonlinear."
Edmunds Inside Line editors calculate that the cost of electricity needs to be below $0.24 per kilowatt-hour to ensure driving the Volt on electricity is cheaper than driving on gasoline, based on the test car's consumption of energy at a rate of 39 kilowatt-hours per 100 miles and an average of 31.1 mpg in gas engine assistance mode. Engineering editor Jason Kavanagh adds, "That's a pretty achievable bogey as the average base rate in the states where the Volt will be sold in the first year is $0.16 per kilowatt-hour." He recommends double-checking local rates and how "the cost of electricity varies by provider, region, season and time of day, plus there may (or may not) be special rates for plug-in hybrids and EVs."
Fuel consumption varies widely among reviews, depending on how much of the driving was powered by a charged battery versus the range-extending gasoline engine. Motor Trend reports an average of 126.7 mpg during their test period. However, driving in gas-consumption mode delivers only about 37 mpg according to the EPA, or a bit less as verified by some test drivers. That's disappointing to many reviewers, who point out that the Toyota Prius averages 50 mpg and the Ford Fusion Hybrid averages 39 mpg on regular 87-octane gas. Car.com's Wiesenfelder adds: "Arguably the biggest strike against the Volt is that it requires premium gas, which takes a bite out of the money you were hoping to save when you have to drive it in range-extending mode."
Inside the passenger cabin, reviewers are impressed with how quiet the Volt operates and how well wind and road noise is muted. However, opening a window causes an unusual and unpleasant buffeting, several reviews note. Road & Track John Lamm explains: "Around 40 mph with various combinations of passengers and window openings, the buffeting will about pop your ears." Lamm and other critics like the interior layout and front seat comfort, although several reviews are less than pleased with the smooth, hard-to-read center console controls. "In an otherwise well-done interior, the glossy-finish center stack has tiny touch-control buttons with seemingly no logic to their placement," Lamm says. Others add that it's too easy to accidentally push a button by brushing against the panel.
The Volt's 435-pound T-shaped lithium-ion battery pack is positioned down the center and across the back of the Volt. It separates the two rear seats, which many reviewers dislike. "The rear seats are the weakest aspect of the car. Low to the floor, overly firm, and cramped, unless you're a child (or the size of one) you won't be comfortable," says Michael Karesh of TheTruthAboutCars.com. Trunk space of 10.2 cubic feet is also smaller than most sedans, although Edmunds.com points out, "But since it's a hatchback with rear seats that fold down to expand cargo capacity, carrying around bulky items should be relatively easy."
Several reviewers criticize the Chevrolet Volt's outward visibility. Some dislike the thick roof pillars on both sides of the steeply raked windshield. Others say the rearward visibility is compromised by the wide rear pillars and horizontally split rear window. ConsumerGuide.com emphasizes, "The optional rear-obstacle detection and review camera help in this regard."
The 2011 Chevrolet Volt sedan includes a comprehensive array of safety equipment, including full front and rear side-curtain airbags, front side-impact airbags, a pair of knee airbags, antilock braking system and electronic stability control. OnStar provides automatic rescue notification if the airbags deploy.
Volt owners will also be able to remotely initiate charging, lock and unlock the doors, start the air conditioning, and download efficiency numbers (among other things) using a dedicated smartphone application.
Among the profusion of Chevrolet Volt articles, we sought out comprehensive test-drive reviews that include plenty of driving impressions and behind-the-wheel opinions. Edmunds Inside Line compares the Volt to a prototype of the Toyota Prius PHV plug-in hybrid vehicle, which is expected in 2012. Each of the enthusiast magazines -- Car and Driver, Motor Trend and Road & Track -- have thorough reviews of the Volt. Edmunds Inside Line, Edmunds.com and Cars.com also provide informative single-car evaluations. The Volt has also won won several industry awards, including Motor Trend's 2011 Car of the Year, The North American Car of the Year and Automobile Magazine's 2011 Automobile of the Year.
1. Inside Line
Edmunds Inside Line compares the Chevrolet Volt to a prototype Toyota Prius PHV – a plug-in hybrid vehicle that Toyota does not yet sell, but is likely to offer in late 2012. With plenty of technical background, the article reveals that the Prius consumes less energy overall, but the Volt has better performance, ride and handling. The Volt wins the scoring by less than one point
Review: Comparison Test: 2011 Chevrolet Volt vs. 2010 Toyota Prius PHV, Dan Edmunds, Dec. 6, 2010
2. Motor Trend
Motor Trend's Frank Markus provides a well-written technical explanation of how the Chevrolet Volt works, along with a detailed description of the behind-the-wheel experience. With the Volt's respectable acceleration and handling, he comments that if gas/electric and plug-in sports cars "are as well engineered as this subcompact, enthusiasts need not fear the 60-mpg future."
Review: First Test: 2011 Chevrolet Volt, Frank Markus, Dec. 2010
3. Edmunds Inside Line
Edmunds Inside Line evaluates the 2011 Chevrolet Volt thoroughly, including track testing and detailed driving impressions. Jason Kavanagh especially likes the ride and handling, commenting, "The most tangible promise of the Volt is simply that it drives better than more established hybrids."
Review: 2011 Chevrolet Volt Full Test and Video, Jason Kavanagh, Nov. 9, 2010
This extensive review by Cars.com writer Joe Wiesenfelder gives plenty of technical information and driving impressions of the Chevrolet Volt electric sedan. He comments, "At a glance, the Volt looks expensive, but once you subtract the tax credit it's not as bad. Once you compare its refinement and superior driving experience to the Prius, which itself exceeds $30,000 when loaded with features, you're closer still."
Review: 2011 Chevrolet Volt, Joe Wiesenfelder, Oct. 15, 2010
This thorough review provides good driving impressions of the Chevrolet Volt, with mentions of how it compares to the Toyota Prius and Ford Fusion Hybrid. Michael Karesh is pleased with the Volt's handling, ride and "normalcy" of the driving experience. He is most disappointed in the small rear seat
Review: Review: 2011 Chevrolet Volt Take Two, Michael Karesh, Nov. 10, 2010
With a list of pros and cons, along with a thorough description, Edmunds.com's James Riswick gives an excellent overview of the Chevrolet Volt. He likes the "normalcy" of the Volt, but says "limited outward visibility makes this car feel smaller than it is."
Review: 2011 Chevrolet Volt Road Test, James Riswick
7. Road & Track
Road & Track editor John Lamm provides good background of the Chevrolet Volt's technology as well as detailed driving impressions. He says after some time with the car, you'll mostly focus on "how quiet the Volt is at low speeds, how rarely you visit gas stations and that you must remember to plug it in whenever possible."
Review: 2011 Chevrolet Volt – Road Test, John Lamm, Dec. 9, 2010
8. The Wall Street Journal
Mixing behind-the-wheel impressions with some editorializing, The Wall Street Journal's Dan Neil gives an insightful review of the Chevy Volt. He says, "It takes about a half-hour for the EV novelty to wear off, and then the Volt feels exactly like any other well-made fuel-efficient hybrid, which was the general idea."
Review: Chevrolet Volt: A Win for the Home Team, Dan Neil, Oct. 29, 2010
9. Car and Driver
This full road test by Car and Driver writer Dave Vanderwerp covers the Chevrolet Volt thoroughly. While not impressed with 35 mpg average for gas-powered miles, he says, "With the possible exception of a fairly cramped back seat and an undersized cargo hold, the Volt checks all the boxes, plus it outdrives the hybrid competition."
Review: 2011 Chevrolet Volt Full Test -- Road Test, Dave Vanderwerp, Oct. 2010
In a comprehensive review, Jeff Sabatini provides a good technical discussion plus driving evaluation. He calculates that if you drive a fully charged Volt until the tank runs dry, you'll average only about 38 mpg, which he calls "nothing short of disappointing."
Review: First Drive: 2011 Chevrolet Volt, Jeff Sabatini, Oct. 20, 2010
11. USA Today Magazine
USA Today's James Healey adheres to his standard road-test evaluation format, providing a good summary review of the Chevrolet Volt. He says it's a "premium execution of a pleasant-looking, easy-driving small car – one you'd probably be satisfied to have as your only vehicle (assuming you don't need a big car or roomy back seat)."
Review: Review: Chevy's Easy-driving Volt Could Be Your Only Car, James R. Healey, Oct. 22, 2010
ConsumerGuide.com summarizes the Chevrolet Volt in its standardized evaluation, rating the test vehicle in a variety of categories. Editors say, "Although its primary appeal will be to the 'Go Green' crowd, Volt could easily stand on its considerable practical merits."
Review: 2011 Chevrolet Volt: Road Test, Editors of ConsumerGuide.com
This Wired piece gives a brief rundown on the OnStar-linked smartphone app that is available to Chevrolet Volt owners.
Review: Chevrolet Volt Gets a Smartphone App, Chuck Squatriglia, Jan. 6, 2010