The 2016 Chevy Volt has risen on the U.S. EPA’s all-time fuel sipper top-10 list with 24-percent better gas-plus-electric fuel economy than the 2015 Volt and that version was already number one to begin with – with an asterisk.
Asterisk: Not counted by the EPA are all-electric vehicles which are more energy efficient but more susceptible to range, infrastructure, and recharging speed limitations, and counted but not as capable as the Volt is the BMW i3 REx.
The BMW with “88 mpg” actually outdoes the Volt’s “77 mpg” – the 2015 Volt is rated 62 mpg. However, BMW’s range-extended EV is hobbled with a 1.9-gallon fuel tank under California BEVx rules, and power limited in gas-burning mode with a 2-cylinder 33-horsepower engine meant just to help recharge the battery.
Not capable of cruising much past 70 mph on the flats, slow up mountain grades, the BMW’s gas engine is a limp-home feature to create greater peace of mind for the EV’s drivers.
It’s a fantastic piece of engineering, and in Europe it is less limited, but the Volt works like any plug-in hybrid, which means it works like any gas car, and can thus travel coast to coast, up mountains as needed.
For those of you already knowledgeable of these cars, you may be wondering where these numbers – “88 mpg” for i3, and “77 mpg” for Volt come from as they are not on the window sticker.
These numbers, says the EPA, are the result of a complicated mathematical equation that determine these cars’ “utility factor.”
Utility factor is engineer-speak for operation partly on battery, and partly on gas. It follows a complex formula and certain assumptions by the EPA, and is a unique workaround for the Volt and other electrified vehicles that also are hard to pigeonhole.
That it’s not on the window sticker was explained by the EPA which said the combined figure “merges” gas and electricity and is based on specific averaged representative drive cycles that may or may not not match what individuals actually do.
“We thought it better to provide the “bookends,” showing consumers the electricity consumption (and how many miles it was expected to last) and the gasoline consumption that occurs after the electricity is depleted,” said an EPA representative. “But we need to ‘merge’ gas and electricity to provide a metric by which we can compare PHEVs to all other vehicles.”
Also true is depending on the specific drive cycle, the Volt may average worse or better than “77 mpg,” and we’ll have more on that further in.
Fancy math aside, pure EVs (which are EPA-listed under 2016 Top Fuel Sippers) and even the BMW i3 REx are still the cleanest, most energy saving vehicles. However, among cars meant to scoff at “range anxiety,” the EPA reveals the Volt is heads above a who’s-who list of cars people normally associate with ultimate fuel sippers.
Its biggest advantage is its biggest battery. While some have quibbled over whether the Volt even deserves to be called an “electric vehicle” or a mere “plug-in hybrid,” undeniable is its battery is nearly double the next-nearest PHEV’s in kilowatt-hours.
This lets it work like a pure EV at up to 98 mph, it has nearly twice the electric range of the nearest plug-in hybrid competitor, and pressing the accelerator to the floor will not induce the gas engine to kick on as it will with all other blended PHEVs.
The Volt’s battery this year is 18.4-kwh and the EPA rates it at 53 miles range. The next-closest competitor is the pending 2016 Hyundai Sonata PHEV with 9.8 kwh, and 27 miles range. Then follows in this class Ford’s Fusion and C-Max Energi siblings with 7.6 and 19 miles range. The 2015 Toyota Prius plug-in hybrid had 4.4 kwh, production ceased in June as Toyota finalizes its un-revealed replacement, and it was in last place in the range wars with 11 miles “elec+gas.”
Also helping things for the Volt is General Motors boosted its powertrain efficiency in EV mode to 31 kwh/100 miles versus the outgoing Volt’s 35 kwh/100 miles. More commonly known as “MPGe (miles per gallon equivalent), the new Volt is rated 106 MPGe versus 98 MPGe for the 2015 Volt.
It’s not the all-time most efficient while in EV mode – Honda’s discontinued 2014 Accord Plug-in Hybrid was rated 115 MPGe when in EV mode, but the extra efficiency with electricity helps.
Another aid is this year the Volt’s all-aluminum Ecotec 1.5-liter gas engine is rated 42 mpg instead of 37 mpg for the outgoing 1.4 – and, while not a factor in efficiency, costs are saved because it now runs on regular gas, and premium is no longer required.
All told, the Volt is rated 77 mpg under the EPA’s utility factor equation, a 24-percent jump from 62 mpg. Aside from the BMW i3 REx, no other car that burns gasoline – hybrid or plug-in hybrid – comes close.
Toyota’s 2015 Prius PHV was EPA-rated at 58 mpg – barely above its base 50 mpg in regular hybrid mode showing how little help the battery is.
The 50 mpg however is otherwise superior to the Volt’s 42 mpg, but the Prius’ electric only efficiency is a so-so 95 MPGe.
Next down from that is the Volt’s upline Cadillac ELR sibling of sorts at 54 mpg. Beyond that is the die-hard, old school eco-car of lore, the original 2000 Honda Insight Hybrid – a remarkable car whose 53 mpg rates above modern hybrids, the Ford plug-in hybrids, and Audi’s new PHEV, the A3 e-tron.
No Perfect Solution
The Volt is like the brainy kid in the classroom who may fall behind some of the other kids talented in other arena.
More specifically, its powertrain is its star credential. Being a compact-class car, it is technically a five-seater, but more diminutive than the midsized competitors.
It is also a relatively sharp handling car, zips to 30 mph right quick at 2.6 seconds, but the space consideration has been a deal breaker for some. It simply is not as roomy front and back.
What it is best at is driving all electrically, and two people in front can be comfortable while back seat passengers have moderate room, but taller statured people will be limited.
77 mpg to Infinity
Worth noting also is while this discussion is over bare EPA metrics, that is just a starting point. The EPA’s numbers are statistically averaged and based on typical (idealized) driving patterns and charging cycles.
As is true for all plug-in hybrids, there are techniques some people use to beat EPA assumptions – staying within all-electric range and intraday charging.
If a plug-in hybrid is kept within its battery’s range – be it, say, 53 miles as is the case for the Volt, or only 19 miles for a Fusion Energi – no gas need be burned.
Intraday charging is also a common means to garner the efficiency and zero emissions of a pure EV from a PHEV, and this simply means charging more than the once-daily assumed by the EPA.
On the extreme end, one 2012 Volt owner, Erick Belmer, charges upwards of three times daily, and though his car is rated for just 35 miles range, he routinely goes 100 miles on battery alone in a single day – farther than a Nissan Leaf EV.
This of course is only possible if charging is available, and in Belmer’s case, he personally installed a couple chargers at places he routinely travels to make up for lack of infrastructure in his small Ohio town.
This is just food for thought. Statistics like “most fuel efficient” car are all well and good but there are workarounds for those determined to burn little to no gas even with today’s first and now second-generation plug-in hybrids.
That said, the one that makes it easiest according to the EPA is the 2016 Chevy Volt.