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.
The futuristic cockpit design is centered around digital displays that offer a great deal of information on the car's running statistics, the battery state of charge, the remaining electric and gasoline range, and its history of energy usage. Much to the dismay of the most plug-in-happy owners, the highest gas mileage it will display is 250 mpg.
Halfway through the 2012 model year (on cars built after February that year), Volts sold in California were upgraded to comply with stricter emissions regulations that allowed them to be granted single-occupant use of the High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes on the state's crowded freeways. Cars sold in New York added that equipment for 2013.
The Volt is priced at $39,995, and qualifies for a $7,500 Federal tax credit (and a variety of state, local, and corporate incentives too, including a $2,500 California purchase rebate). That brings it closer to the price of more conventional green cars like the Toyota Prius hybrid or its new plug-in variant.
Calculations on payback depend on daily mileage covered, local electricity costs (which can range from 3 cents to 25 cents per kilowatt-hour) and how often the owner can recharge and at what cost. In general, electric operation usually runs one-third to one-fifth the cost per mile of gasoline. GM warranties the battery pack for 8 years or 100,000 miles in most states.
The car's Voltec range-extended electric drive system is the first generation of a powertrain that will be used in other vehicles and in higher volumes in the years and decades to come. Reductions in battery cost and improvements in other components will gradually bring down the cost, but that will take place gradually, and the Volt will remain a specialty vehicle for some years.
Buyers are likely to compare it to the Prius and its plug-in model, the Nissan Leaf, and Ford's pair of Energi plug-in hybrids, offered in the C-Max five-door hatchback and the Fusion mid-size sedan. And given its cost, they may view it as an alternative to pricier imported brands like Audi and BMW.
Early Volt buyers are willing to pay the money to have the most advanced car GM makes. The Volt is one of only a handful of plug-in cars that runs all electrically and can take you cross-country if needed. The icing on the cake, though, is that the car is genuinely good--fun to drive as well as cutting edge. The fact that buyers may be considering a Chevy against an Audi or BMW is a win for GM all by itself. Score one for General Motors