The Volt has been described as an extended-range electric vehicle, since it uses a set of lithium-ion batteries to provide motive power to the front wheels. However, in limited circumstances, it also acts as a plug-in hybrid, with batteries contributing some torque along with the engine, which runs when the battery is depleted. In electric-only mode, the Volt has 38 miles of driving in a full charge, according to the EPA. With the 1.4-liter four-cylinder "range extender" engine, it has more than 300 miles of use per charge and fill-up.
Whatever your image of electric cars, we've driven the Chevy Volt under a variety of conditions--and there's no questioning the fact that it's a real car. It seats four in comfort, performs briskly, rides and drives quietly, and offers the features and accessories you'd expect of any car. But its selling point against pure electric cars like the Nissan Leaf is that it runs as long as you want it to--you can drive it nonstop across country, stopping only for gasoline, just like any other car.
If you ignored the information displays, in fact, it might be possible to miss the Volt's revolutionary electric powertrain. If you never plug it in, its gasoline engine will keep it running happily as long as you keep filling the tank. You might not know that the front wheels are driven by a large electric motor.
The current crop of Volt owners, however, bought the car precisely because of that electric drive. They their Volts into 110-Volt wall sockets or a 220-Volt charging station to recharge their battery packs, usually overnight. In the real world, that gives a Volt 25 to 45 miles of electric range. GM's marketers point out--relentlessly--that three-quarters of U.S. vehicles cover less than 40 miles per day. Owners who recharge their Volts daily and use them for a commute that's shorter than that may never burn a drop of gasoline.
Once the battery energy is depleted, the Volt's 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine switches on. Chevy's done a superb job with noise suppression; it happens so quietly you might miss it if you're not paying attention. In what's called "range-sustaining mode," a Volt will travel about 300 miles on a tank.
The first Volt concept was introduced at the 2007 Detroit Auto Show, and the distinctive but slab-sided production car is quite different from the concept's long, lean shape. The changes were all in the service of cutting aerodynamic drag. The blanked-off front "grille" prevents air turbulence, and the exhaust exits under the car--there's no exhaust-pipe outlet at the rear.