It’s a neat experience driving a quiet, smooth, high-tech pure electric car, and Chevrolet’s 2017 Volt provides this with no range or refueling drawbacks.
Uniquely, the car acts as a pure EV for all intents and purposes, but once its range – EPA-rated at 53 miles combined – runs out, it morphs into a 42 mpg hybrid able to be fueled at any gas pump.
If you really did not want to, you could even choose not to plug it in. That of course would defeat the purpose, but the idea is it’s intended to be a flexible and user-friendly car, and that it is.
Now in its seventh model year, the original “extended range electric vehicle” (EREV) and still only in its class, the Volt’s electric range towers above that of “blended” plug-in hybrids electric vehicles (PHEVs) that mimic its formula albeit with only about half the Volt’s EV range at best.
Electric range is the primary reason why anyone would buy a plug-in hybrid in the first place. Compared to the Volt’s 53 miles, blended plug-in hybrids like the Ford Fusion Energi, C-Max Energi, Hyundai Sonata PHEV, Kia Optima PHEV, are really not in the same league. They are actually converted variants of conventional models, whereas the Volt is purpose made to be what it is.
It’s an odd trade-off though, because those midsized cars are more akin to one another in interior volume and electric range – 22 miles for the Fords, and 27 miles for the Kia and Hyundai – and so again, the compact Volt is in a class of one.
How so? It is not a blended plug-in hybrid, it is an EREV. Why does that matter? This is not an argument over semantics. People have bandied terms, and we take no stand other than to say the Volt is the only one that stays in EV mode all the way to top speed – 98 mph – and the gas engine stays off.
On the other hand, if one were to take any of the other blended PHEVs out for a drive and stomp on the go pedal do you know what happens? The gas engine kicks on.
What happens when you stomp on the accelerator with a Volt on its way to its claimed 8.4 second 0-60 speed in EV mode? The doubly sized battery digs deeper, and the car is able to stay in EV mode for full speed acceleration runs with zero emissions, and engine off.
Sure the others claim 0-60 in a 7-point something range, but they need gas to do it. In EV mode, a Fusion Energi is otherwise neck and neck with a Ford Pinto at 15 seconds.
Do you know what that means? Functionally, the Volt really is an electric car with extended range!
It’s the only one that is quite like it though an odd exception also hard to pigeonhole is the BMW i3 REx. This EV is equipped with only a 2.4-gallon gas tank, and is speed and power limited in range-extended mode, especially up hills and on highways. All the others mentioned are as capable in gas or electrified mode, with zero drivability compromises, and as coast-to-coast capable as any conventional car.
Of them all, the Volt is the one most able to offer pure EV driving akin to that of a Nissan Leaf, BMW i3 BEV, Kia Soul EV, Tesla, etc.
The Volt can thus be just as much an EV as these dedicated all-electric EVs, and that’s good news for those wishing to curb petroleum and emissions. The U.S. Energy Department says more than 74 percent of drivers can meet their average driving needs with even less than the range the updated Volt provides. The Volt does something even the all-electric EVs don’t, however, in that while it’s an EV when you want it, it’s a hybrid when you need it.
What’s also neat for the wallet is it’s eligible for the same $7,500 federal tax credit full EVs get. This is more than the blended PHEVs are eligible for, as it’s pegged to battery size, and in cases where state incentives are available, the Volt edges them there too.
Obviously the Volt comes with its own set of pros and cons besides. It is its own uniquely styled car, and there’s more to buying a car than energy efficiency, but for folks looking for a bridge between gas and electric, this may be the best thing going.
Amazingly, no one has quite copied the formula. Amazingly also, there are a gazillion people out there who still don’t get this simple fact and pass it up in the showroom – though it is America’s best seller for what that’s worth in this yet-sub market.
Some say the Volt has had a blind spot hanging over it since originally introduced in 2011, with no thanks to all sorts of confusion and politics, rendering it essentially invisible to many buyers.
Whatever the reason, this review focuses on points we think have been somehow overlooked by many consumers – not just the “fans” and those who already “get it.”
For an alternative review on the Volt, you can also check our write-up from the drive we took when GM launched the 2016 model last year.
Lots of people have said lots of things about the Volt, but most people we speak to think it looks handsome enough.
It does however have more than a passing resemblance to a much-cheaper Cruze. And, from some angles you see a hint of Honda, a pinch of Kia, and a dash of generic car du jour thrown in – and the car has “braces,” as in the silver grille.
On the plus side the car is like an arrow through the air, with sleek coefficient of drag to save energy. It also otherwise blends in like any new normal car, and does not stand out like a science oddity with frog eyes, or weird proportions, screaming look at me, I’m green.
Nope, no holier-than-thou design language expressed or implied there, and that was purely intentional by Chevrolet whose marketers have struggled to position the competent car GM’s engineers have built.
The goal was “mainstream,” and it is inside as well, with Chevrolet family design coupled with functionality, and relative comfort.
The new car has less of a blind spot from the A-pillar than on gen one, and the back seat space is 0.6 inches longer in legroom, 0.2 inches less on head room.
Shoppers will definitely want to sit back there and play with the front seat adjustment fore and aft to see if the tighter back seat is going to work for them.
You don’t need to know how a car works to know if it works. Nor do you need to know how a car works in order to benefit from it.
So, you can skip this, or for those who want to know a bit, this section is for you, and for the real tech geeks, here’s a deep dive into the special drive unit – electric transmission.
Some of the engineering leading to the Volt has been confusing for some people. Others also have questioned whether hybrids are over-complicated and therefore potential maintenance nightmares.
Actually normal maintenance items like brakes tend to go longer due to regenerative braking which uses the motor-generator instead of friction pads, calipers, and rotors as often. Also oil changes can be fewer and farther between, assuming EV usage, with engine off for a proportion of it operation.
To date, the Volt’s reliability record has been relatively good, and its battery has had a superlative record. One driver has even done over 100,000 EV miles since 2012 – 300,000 in total – and reports zero battery charge holding loss – though we imagine there are counter examples out there too.
Realistically, it is expected to lose some range over time, but the Volt’s liquid cooled battery has proven robust.
Driving the car is a new all-aluminum engine and drive unit.
For 2016, the drive unit is 100-pounds lighter, and shed rare earth magnets in the smaller of its two motors and reduced them by 40 percent in the larger. It delivers more torque at 298 pounds-feet over the former 273, and the same 149 horsepower (111 kilowatts).
Inside the drive unit now are two connected planetary gearsets. One motor is 117 horsepower (87 kilowatts), the other is 64 horsepower (48 kilowatts). They are connected by a sophisticated traction power inverter module (TPIM) and merged with a new all-aluminum 1.5-liter Ecotec engine. It features direct injection, 12.5:1 compression ratio, cooled exhaust gas recirculation and a variable displacement oil pump, and is rated for 101 horsepower at 5,600 rpm.
The EPA rates it for 57 all-electric miles in the city, and 49 all-electric miles highway. Efficiency has also been improved in gas operation to 43 mpg city, 42 mpg highway, 42 mpg combined on regular gas from a former 37 mpg combined on premium, and “miles per gallon equivalent” (MPGe) is 113 city, 99 highway, 106 combined.
The 243-pound lighter, 3,543-pound 2016 Volt can accelerate from 0-30 mph in 2.6 seconds – within realm of what a 60-kwh Tesla Model S can do, give or take a tenth of a second. Zero-to-60 mph is estimated at 8.4 seconds.
From its inception, the new drive unit was also designed to enable GM to spin off hybrids – or plug-in hybrids – at will, and the 2016 Malibu Hybrid was co-developed with a similar drive unit, but only 1.5-kwh battery, and no plug.
Power for the Volt is supplied by a new 18.4-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery replacing the former 17.1. Fewer and larger LG Chem cells are used, and the T-pack sheds 20 pounds.
When the battery is depleted – actually when the computer tells it to stop delivering power after about 14.0 kWh used – the gas engine kicks on. This is about 76 percent usable power of the nominal 18.4 total kilowatts, and GM upped it from about 65 percent of the battery used on gen-one.
Recharging takes about 4.5 hours on 240-volt level two power, or 13 hours for 120-volt house current. Many Volt owners don’t opt for level two, but some do. Some also wanted a bigger on-board charger, and it is, 3.6-kw instead of 3.3 which makes charge times comparable when charging at 240 volts. But not available is a 6.6-kw charger as some requested. This would have enabled quicker recharging, and some said they’d have paid extra for it, but this is one of the cost-reducing compromises GM settled upon.
Living With the Volt
We already gave away a lot on the Volt’s main benefit up top, but in sum that is what you are looking at: The distinguishing characteristic that puts the Volt in a class of one is the ability to play EV for 53 EPA rated miles, then run as a hybrid.
Can the EV range go lower? Yes, in cold, expect a range drop because batteries like people prefer balmy temperatures. What’s more, its electric heating takes much more energy than A/C and can reduce range by one-third or even half in the worst winter conditions.
And, there’s an annoying characteristic below freezing that is only partially adjustable called “engine running due to temperature.” All plug-in hybrids have it, and it basically means the engine must come on at freezing temperatures to provide more heat.
As for summer operation, the Volt we had for a couple weeks was good for its 53 miles combined as rated, and could get a few extra if driven slower. As with a conventional car, efficiency depends on the driver, and conditions.
On the highway, we got 44 miles after going 8 miles in suburban traffic, and the remainder in cruise control at 70 mph on the Pennsylvania turnpike. Slowing for traffic or passing a few times was involved. Other tests would make it reasonable to expect over 40, and the EPA’s rated 49 EV miles is attainable at lower highway speeds as well.
Around bends, the car also shows they did not check fun at the door when making one of the lowest potential emissions cars available.
Braking action also is predictable and regenerative braking can be modulated to feed range into the battery. Several times we saw a regular drive of 9.4 miles use only 4-5 miles indicated range given all the regeneration, and use of the regen paddle on the left back side of the steering wheel instead of the foot brake.
Use of the foot brake of course will also generate regenerative energy, as will shifting into L which increases regen upon decel. Between the techniques, we found the convenience of the regen paddle useful, and the kilowatt indicator seemed to show more-rapid increase of kW energy being returned to the battery with use of the paddle. Different combinations of regen paddle – Low and footbrake can achieve overlapping range-increasing results however.
Overall, the Volt is all-day comfortable with its plethora of expected infotainment, Nav, adjustable heated – but not ventilated or electrically operated – seats and considerable leg room up front.
Utility wise, it’s a hatch disguised sort of like a sedan; not as spacious as a midsized Toyota Prius, but OK.
Is the Volt A Good Choice?
A full analysis could pore over more details than covered here, but we’ve provided a few to get started.
The Volt is a compact family car with the usual limitations space-wise. It is probably best for one or two people day to day, or those with kids or people of shorter stature if speaking of who will spend time in the back seat.
Once more frequently touted as a means to amplify fuel savings, carpooling with the Volt is feasible, but your back seat riders better be OK with the space. The lens view in our video does not fully show it can be more cramped back there than it looks. Here is where bigger cars mentioned will edge it out.
Closer comparisons can also be done with tools by the U.S. EPA’s fueleconomy.gov which lets one look at mpg, electricity usage efficiency, electric range, and emissions – tailpipe and upstream on an idealized national average or by zip code basis.
Price for the LT starts at $34,095 including destination fee. An upscale Premier trim starts at $38,445.
Eligible for a full $7,500 federal tax credit – a couple thousand more than the PHEVs – and state subsidies where applicable, its total cost of ownership can prove amazingly good. Considering non-plug-in hybrids don’t get any subsidies now, the Volt can be competitive even with the household-name Prius.
Further, though Chevy salesmen have been known to steer people to the easier to sell Cruze, Edmunds True Cost To Own calculator has shown compelling numbers. 2017 data is yet unavailable, but a last-gen 2015 model priced at $32,500 after dealer discounts could earn back the difference and then save an average driver in Southern California $6,000 in five years compared to a $21,400 Chevy Cruze. And now, the new one is better.
Obviously the Volt will not work for everyone, and even its biggest supporters have said it is a shame GM has chosen not to proliferate larger sedan, crossover, SUV and other models using its “Voltec” architecture.
Otherwise, the Volt really is an excellent solution.