2012 Chevrolet Volt Road Test Review

Simon Hill - CAP staff
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Published on January 06, 2012

Published on January 06, 2012

Published on January 06, 2012

Published on January 06, 2012

Published on January 06, 2012

Published on January 06, 2012

Published on January 06, 2012

Published on January 06, 2012

A tall back end contributes to a low drag coefficient of 0.29. (Photo: Simon Hill, Canadian Auto Press)

Published on January 06, 2012

Published on January 06, 2012

Though not as radical-looking as the original concept, the production Volt is a very good-looking car with a futuristic edge. (Photo: Simon Hill, Canadian Auto Press)

Published on January 06, 2012

Published on January 06, 2012

Published on January 06, 2012

Comfortable front bucket seats are available in leather, but even then they are manually adjusted, saving weight and power. (Photo: Simon Hill, Canadian Auto Press)

Published on January 06, 2012

The rear seats are also individual buckets, allowing the motive battery to be mounted in the tall centre tunnel. (Photo: Simon Hill, Canadian Auto Press)

Published on January 06, 2012

The cabin is a pleasant place to be, although economy considerations suggest using the climate control on moderate settings. (Photo: Simon Hill, Canadian Auto Press)

Published on January 06, 2012

The slightly busy centre stack uses touch-sensitive controls instead of traditional switches. A large display screen displays audio and vehicle systems information. (Photo: Simon Hill, Canadian Auto Press)

Published on January 06, 2012

Published on January 06, 2012

Published on January 06, 2012

Power is from a 149-horsepower (111 kW) electric motor. There's a 1.4-litre gas engine under the hood too, but it's merely a "range extender." (Photo: Simon Hill, Canadian Auto Press)

Published on January 06, 2012

Published on January 06, 2012

Published on January 06, 2012

Since its introduction as a concept car back in 2007, Chevrolet's Volt has been the subject of more hype and speculation than pretty much any other car in recent memory. So it seemed almost surreal when the cars finally began arriving in select Canadian dealerships in late 2011 and I was able to take one out for a few days of testing. Was it for real?

The good news is that in person the Volt really is, well, the real thing. It's not some flimsy golf-cart of an electric car. It's a substantial, well-outfitted and, for the most part, perfectly "normal" feeling car.

Stylistically, the production Volt isn't as radical-looking as the original concept car, but it is still a very good-looking four-door hatchback with a futuristic edge to it. Inside, the futuristic feel is accented by a switchless touch-panel centre stack (a deliberate nod forward) and a high centre tunnel separating individual front and back bucket seats (a vaguely futuristic-looking feature that's actually required to house the longitudinally-mounted lithium-ion motive battery).

Mechanically, the Volt is what's known as an extended-range plug-in electric vehicle, which means that the primary motor driving the wheels is an electric motor that draws its energy from the motive battery. There's also a smaller secondary electric motor that can act either as a generator or as a motor assist during high-speed cruising. When braking, the generator system recaptures braking energy.

The battery can be charged from almost any available electrical outlet when the Volt is parked, and provides a range of about 40 to 80 km, depending on driving style and road conditions. On the road, once the available battery power runs down below a set threshold, a small 1.4-litre Atkinson cycle gas engine starts up to run the generator, providing power to the drive motor and charging the motive battery with any excess available capacity. In this gas-electric mode, the Volt can travel a further 500 km or thereabouts, eliminating the "range anxiety" so often associated with electric cars.

When I picked up my Cyber Grey Metallic test car it was a chilly, wet fall day and the dealership turned the car over to me with the battery charged and the heat cranked way up. As I started toward home, the range indicator fell precipitously - it had started out showing a 48-km range, but within three kilometers the indicated range was down to 39 km. At that rate it wasn't clear whether I'd make it home before the gas engine kicked in, but help was at hand: According to the economy tips available through the infotainment screen, one key to extending the electric driving range is to use the heating and cooling on moderate settings, and to turn on the seat heaters to stay comfortable rather than heating up the entire cabin. So I turned the temperature down from 24 degrees to 18.5 degrees, turned the fan to low and switched my seat heater on low. Immediately I recovered a kilometer of indicated range, and I achieved much closer to 1:1 indicated and actual range from that point forward. It seems the future may look a bit like the past, with warm driving gloves "de rigueur" in the winter.

The Volt is based on the same Delta II platform as the Chevrolet Cruze, and so on the road it exhibits most of the Cruze's excellent road manners: It is well-balanced, with crisp handling and good grip, and in a straight line the ride is planted, solid feeling and quiet. Especially quiet, because in electric mode there is no combustion engine clattering away, and the electric motor makes almost no noise at all. The effect is that the Volt glides along with a hushed assurance that's usually reserved for only the most expensive luxury cars. Roaring V8s may sound sporty, but nothing speaks luxury like silence.

Despite its quiet operation, however, the electric motor isn't lacking for power. It is rated at 149 horsepower (111 kW) and 273 lb-ft of torque, but being electric all of this torque is available right from standstill. The throttle response is therefore instant: press your foot down and you whoosh up to speed in a hushed, seamless rush, reaching 100 km/h in just over nine seconds. It's not record-breakingly fast, but with a completely linear throttle response and gobs of silent torque from any speed, it offers a visceral pleasure that's not apparent in any of the conventional hybrid vehicles I've driven.

There's also a real pleasure in burning virtually no fuel at all during regular short-hop drives. I say "virtually" because the Volt's instruction manual says the car will eventually start its engine regardless for a short period, in order to circulate fluids and stop the the fuel going stale. But in my brief time with the Volt I drove about 120 kilometers without ever running the battery down or needing to run the gas engine. I didn't even pay for the electricity, because my strata let me use the parkade outlet for free, but if I had it would've cost me about $2.85 for the 38.5 kW/hrs I used. That would buy just over two litres of gas, so I was achieving the cost equivalent of about 1.7 L/100km. I eventually forced the engine to start up (you can doing this by popping the hood) just so I could hear what it sounds like - the verdict is it's relatively quiet, but after gliding around silently it takes a little getting used to, especially since it revs almost entirely independently of road speed.

Overall, and ignoring all the hype, I was hugely impressed by the Volt. It's not perfect - there are niggling little things like the lack of rear seat heaters despite the recommendation to prefer warm seats and a cool cabin, and the fact that the central display shuts off when you switch off the audio, even though it's used for many things other than the audio system. But these quirks aside, the Volt is a unique and well-executed approach to achieving electric-car economy with internal-combustion range, and it really does work: The test car indicated a lifetime average fuel economy of 2.7 L/100km, and that's in the hands of heavy-footed auto journalists.

The only real rub is the price. Starting at $41,545 the Volt is priced well above the average compact car - about $10,000 more than a fully-loaded Cruze LTZ - and my test car, which included leather upholstery, a navigation system, premium audio, heated front seats, rear vision camera and polished 17-inch five-spoke wheels, came in at $49,260. Even with the green discounts offered by several provincial governments ($8,320 in Ontario, $7,769 in Quebec and $5,000 in BC), it'll still cost you a significant premium to get into a Volt. You'll certainly see some of that back in fuel savings: Assuming a round-trip work commute of 58 km (15,000 km per year), which you could do in a Volt without using any fuel, you'd save about $1,600 a year in fuel costs (at $1.34 per litre) compared to an economical commuter car getting 8L/100km, less electricity costs of about $360. But unless you rack up a serious number of electric-powered miles, you'll still be paying at least some premium for the privilege of being on the forefront of changing automotive technology. Happily, in the case of the Volt that's a good place to be.
©(Copyright Canadian Auto Press)

Topics: Hatchback, PHEV, Chevrolet, 2012, Volt, $40,000 - $49,999, Compact,

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