2011 Chevrolet Volt: Introduction
There were plenty of doubters when General Motors first showed off the Chevrolet Volt concept at the 2007 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, but here we are some four years later and the car is just about ready for its national launch. After rolling out the Volt in a limited number of markets at the very end of 2010, GM is now preparing for increased production at the Volt plant in Hamtramck, Mich., and expects to be able to build 60,000 units annually, for all 50 states, beginning later this year.
The Volt is touted as the "no-compromises" alternative in today's admittedly small market for electric vehicles, thanks to a unique powertrain that combines both an electric drive unit and a 1.4-liter gas-powered I4 engine that's positioned as a "range extender": This Voltec propulsion system delivers an EPA-certified all-electric driving range of 35 miles via the former, as well as the ability to travel up to 344 more miles (again, as certified by the EPA) when relying on the latter.
Thus, in theory, you get the best of both worlds. Research shows that more than 75 percent of the people in the U.S. have a daily commute of less than 40 miles, so many Volt drivers could treat their cars as pure electric vehicles for the majority of their driving, something that can't be said of plug-in hybrids. For example, the coming plug-in Toyota Prius is slated to deliver roughly 13 miles of pure electric driving. That's nice, but it's also nearly 65 percent less than you get from the Volt, and that's a significant difference. On the other hand, as compared to something like the Nissan LEAF, which is capable of more than twice the electric range of the Volt, the Chevy takes the whole "range anxiety" business out of the equation.
But just as importantly, GM also has tried to avoid compromising the rest of the vehicle in its push for high-efficiency driving. That is, the General didn't want the Volt to be all go and no show.
Mission: accomplished? I got the chance to find out for myself recently, when Chevrolet loaned me a 2011 Volt for a week-long test drive. And yes, as is always the case, the vehicle was delivered to me with a full tank of gas—but you'll have to read on to discover how much of it (if any) I used.
2011 Chevrolet Volt: Exterior
The Volt's exterior design relies on some of that "best of both worlds" thinking, too. Clearly, achieving a highly aerodynamic shape was vital for optimum efficiency, and GM claims the Volt is the slipperiest Chevy every produced. But what it's not is a clone of the Toyota Prius, the slipperiest car on the road today. That's important, because while the need for a low coefficient of drag put some constraints on the Volt's designers, they didn't want to end up with a car that looked too similar to the Toyota, a problem that occurred with the Honda Insight.
A key here is that, even with a very steeply raked rear glass, the Volt retains a surprisingly sedan-like silhouette, courtesy of a slight crease just behind the rear doors that creates the illusion of a short rear deck. It's a very effective detail, and just one of many that gives the Volt a notably premium appearance. The black accent bar beneath the side windows is nice as well, flowing from the rear edge of the rear side window all the way into the Volt badging high on the front quarter panel—and notice how the side-view mirrors use a black/body-color two-tone appearance that also integrates the look of the black trim piece.
I do have to point out that, in heavy rains, water tends to collect in various nooks and crannies of the liftgate, and then pour out in a rush when said gate is lifted. The water never went into the cargo hold, but I ended up a little damp.
The front of the car also makes for a nice contrast to the Prius, and the LEAF as well, because the Volt offers the appearance of having a traditional chrome grille as its dominant design cue—it even manages to mimic Chevy's current family face, with a single bar boasting a bow-tie badge. Yet, on closer look, you can see the sort of "high-tech" pattern imprinted on the grille blades that reminds you the Volt isn't a traditional gasoline-powered vehicle. The front light treatments are swept-back and sleek, as you'd expect from such an aerodynamic car, but they are slightly out of step with what's going on at the rear, where the lights seem to be merely minor design accents, albeit visually interesting ones.
Chevy also took pains to hide the Volt's exhaust pipe inside the rear valance, with the opening of the pipe pointing straight down toward the road. I had to get down on the ground myself to find it.
Also, drivers need to beware of the Volt's exceedingly low front spoiler. There just isn't a lot of clearance there although, truth be told, the only thing I ever scraped it on was my own driveway.
2011 Chevrolet Volt: Interior
One of the chief concerns that naysayers have with the Volt is its seemingly steep price, and while I discuss that in more detail below, the interior of the car was specifically designed to provide an upscale feel to match that price, and the work definitely paid off—particularly when the Premium Trim Package is included. For $1,395, that brought leather seating and a leather-wrapped steering wheel, premium door trim, and heated front seats, and added a touch of class to what's already a very sharp interior.
Even without the trim package, the cabin is filled with impressive craftsmanship and eye-catching details, although much depends on what you think of the Volt's center stack. It's made from a high-quality molded plastic material that I think is much much better than fake wood, "piano black," faux brushed metal or most other materials you see in today's vehicles, but traditionalists may be put off by its slick and shiny surface. The same is true for the "silver" door inserts: These are undoubtedly made from hard plastics, but I much prefer their high-gloss metallic sheen to dark leather that is going to fade and washout after a few summers. Coincidentally—or not—the doors on the Chevrolet Camaro use a similar cue.
I wasn't enamored of the bi-level dashboard, but that design choice did help make for a nice transition between the door and dash, which I like to see, and hey, it certainly stands out. On the other side of the ledger, I especially liked the way the gearshift set into its own little niche below the audio controls, and note that the sides of the niche are actually open, giving the treatment a clean, architectural feel.
Speaking of controls, they were quite easy to get used to, even given the button-free setup of the center stack. Small "blisters" at most spots helped my fingers find their way, and the sensitivity was just right for me. I'd be curious as to how friendly the system would be in the winter, though, and I can't imagine you'd be able to do much with gloves or mittens on. The center touchscreen also allowed for quick and easy operation of vehicle controls.
A second seven-inch color screen is used instead of gauges to present information to the driver, and although some early reports claim this to be a bit overwhelming, it's not. It's mostly the same information drivers are used to seeing in a "normal" vehicle, including an eco-feedback gauge that monitors how efficiently you're driving. And naturally, the Volt also tracks the battery's charge state and available electric driving range.
The dual rear bucket seats ensure there's plenty of room for passengers, but with the drawback that overall seating in the Volt is limited to four. In addition, because those rear seatbacks don't create a full-width division between the spacious cargo area and the passenger cabin, the interior can seem unfinished to those sitting in the back.
All the Volt's amenities were above average, however, with very comfortable seats, a grippy steering wheel, and a premium Bose sound system with six speakers and a subwoofer.
2011 Chevrolet Volt: Performance
The Volt driving experience is shockingly normal. In terms of standard measures of power, the car offers 149 hp and 273 lb.-ft. of torque, and that's used to haul around roughly 3,781 lbs. worth of Chevrolet. That's not much in the way of horsepower for a vehicle of that weight, but it's a fair amount of twist, with GM claiming a top speed for the Volt of 100 mph and the ability to go from 0-60 mph in 9 seconds. I didn't test the former, although the Volt was a capable highway driver at speeds approaching 80 mph, and the latter felt about right—perhaps even a tick or two slow. The Volt isn't fast, but its acceleration is comfortably adequate, even when pulling out in front of traffic, and it had excellent road manners. Steering and pedal feel were above average for vehicles with electric power assist steering and regenerative braking, and the transmission operation did an excellent job mimicking the feel and ergonomics you get with a "normal" vehicle.
I know I mentioned that sort of thing a number of times, but it's an important part of the Volt package. The car eases the driver into the idea of electric motoring in a way that makes it more accessible to "regular" customers, and I think that can be an effective advantage in the marketplace.
But now let's get to the bottom line with the Chevrolet Volt: When Chevy dropped the car off, it only had 6-7 miles of electric charge on it, and I quickly ran that out to get a feel for the transition from electric driving to running on gasoline, which was essentially seamless. But that night I plugged the Volt into a standard three-pronged outlet and never used gasoline again. In five full days of driving, I covered 159 miles, all on electricity, and this included a 38-mile roundtrip to Comerica Park to see the Tigers play, in hot weather and plenty of traffic. Also, I can tell you that a colleague of mine reported a 48-mile run on pure electricity.
Crucial to achieving this kind of range was proper management of the climate control, but the Volt helps by providing a readout of how much of an electrical burden is being put on the car by its non-driving systems. And "tuning" the interior for a temperature of 71 degrees, but with a lot of fan power, provided a truly livable compromise.
The Volt also packs plenty of technological performance. In addition to its powertrain and touch-only center-stack controls, the Volt boasts cool gadgetry that allows paired smart phones to control some of the vehicle's functionality, e.g., lock/unlock, remote start, manage/monitor charging, etc., via a free app. There's also pushbutton start, a hard drive and radio "pause" ability, navigation, Bluetooth compatibility and a few other goodies, and this stuff is all standard. Available but not included on the Volt I drove are the usual kinds of tech toys, like rearview camera and blind-spot alert.
Two other notable pieces of standard content with the Volt are an array of eight standard air bags and a five-year subscription to GM's OnStar Directions and Connections service, featuring automatic crash response. This latter, along with being a nifty bit of safety tech, represents a not-insignificant cash value—A three-year retail subscription, the longest plan listed on the OnStar site, is $729.
2011 Chevrolet Volt: Summary
The car I tested was a 2011 model with an MSRP of $40,280, to which was added the aforementioned $1,395 Premium Trim Package, 17-inch forged/polished alloy wheels (replacing standard forged/painted aluminum 17-inchers) for $595, and an additional $495 for the Crystal Red Metallic paint. The total vehicle price, including a $720 destination charge: $43,485. Yet thanks to the federal government, that's not quite the bottom line. If you take into account the $7,500 tax credit, the Volt's net cost comes out to a more manageable $35,985.
Now, that may seem like a lot of coin for a car that's only a tad over 177 inches in length. After all, that means the Volt is four inches shorter but literally more than twice as much money as a starter Chevy Cruze. Just remember, though, that not only does the Volt showcase a truly cutting-edge powertrain, superior craftsmanship and strong levels of content, but it also sells in the brave new world of the premium compact—if you can't configure an even smaller Audi A3 for north of $40,000, you're not trying very hard.
And Chevrolet is in fact lowering the MSRP of the Volt to $39,145 for the 2012 model year. The standard OnStar package will include "only" three years of Turn by Turn Navigation, and the nav system itself is out, and the Volt's destination charge jumps to $850, but there are some gains: Remote keyless entry with passive locking, which automatically locks and unlocks the car's doors when the fob is in range, will now be standard, as will be the Chevrolet MyLink smart-phone integration technology that allows for music streaming via Bluetooth and other phones. The result is that the 2012 entry-level Chevy Volt, packed with content, will be $1,005 less than the 2011 entry-level model.
Slice $7,500 off of this newest Volt and its price reaches $32,495. The punch line? According to the latest estimates from Truecar.com, the average transaction price for a GM vehicle in June was $34,142.
The cost of the Chevrolet Volt in this context isn't out of line at all.
Which means that for drivers whose top priority when shopping for a vehicle is finding one that saves the most gasoline, and who don't live in an area with an infrastructure to support the LEAF, and who can otherwise fit in a four-seat hatchback, and who can afford to pay what is simply an "average" amount of money for a vehicle—for that large group of vehicle shoppers—the 2012 Chevy Volt is really the only choice on the market.