Chevy’s New Volt Is Way Better, But Maybe Not Good Enough
The Chevy Volt was supposed to historic. It would be the first affordable and practical electric car, with an internal combustion engine tucked in to wipe away fears of running out of battery power miles from home.
Developed amidst the turmoil of General Motors’ bankruptcy and bailout, it would signal the automaker could still create innovative, important products. It would save GM’s reputation, if not its bottom line.
Not so much. When it hit the market in 2010, sales were disappointing. Its engine required premium fuel. It had room for just four people. It cost $41,000. It could only go 38 miles on electric power. Sure, it was enough to cover 80-percent of trips Americans make, but it just didn’t live up to the hype.
Then Nissan came out with the affordable, all-electric Leaf. Tesla made electric driving thrilling with the luxury Model S. Ford, BMW, Porsche, and Toyota introduced their own plug-in electric hybrids. All of a sudden, the Volt wasn’t special anymore.
The upside of the car’s disappointing early years is that Chevy gets to make act two a comeback. And so it introduces the second generation, 2016 Volt, packed with a suite of improvements to identify the weaknesses of the first car and make each a non-issue.
The 2016 Volt is more capable, comfortable, affordable, and attractive than the original car. But it’s not necessarily better than its contemporary competition.
One upgrade matters more than any other: The Volt has a greatly improved range that will let it go 53 miles on nothing but electricity. In a July test drive, I did even better, covering 54.9 miles in electric mode. That’s despite spending much of the drive on the highway at 65 or 70 mph, the speed at which EV range tends to fall off steeply.
Like the first Volt, the second gen car has a dual motor system and an internal combustion engine that revs up when the battery’s drained. That’s about it for similarities. The new dual motor setup is 100 pounds lighter and 12 percent more efficient that the outgoing system. On the 2016 car the motors will work together more often, and more efficiently.
By reducing the number of cells and improving the hardware that manages them, Chevy and partner LG made an 18.4-kilowatt hour battery pack that’s lighter and more powerful than its predecessor.
If you fully drain the battery, you’ll feel the 1.5-liter direct-injection engine kick in. Unlike its iron-block predecessor, which demanded premium fuel and foie gras, you can feed this aluminum guy 87 octane and gas station hot dogs. The change is unlikely to mean major savings, but it’s more in line with the Chevy’s aim to make an electric car for the unwashed.
The engine’s good for 101 horsepower, and while it’s not loud, you lose the silent appeal of electric driving when it’s going. Chevy says it’s good for 42 mpg, but in about 30 miles of highway driving using dino juice, I got 38.8 mpg, according to the car’s onboard computer.
That’s not a terrible letdown, because the whole point of the Volt is that if you’re good about plugging the car in, you’ll hardly ever need to spin up the engine. The justification for the plug-in hybrid approach, that a 40-mile electric range is plenty for most drivers most of the time, is even more valid when you push that number north of 50.
Chevy says current Volt owners make 80 percent of their trips without ever firing up the engine, and the increased range will push that figure to 90 percent. Put another way, today’s Volt drivers are averaging about 900 miles between refilling the gas tank. With the extended range, that number should jump to 1,500.
A Nice Ride
The car is pleasant to drive, but hardly a blast. The “regen on demand” paddle on the steering wheel is a neat trick, allowing you to brake with your fingers and send all the recovered energy back into the battery.
It’s quicker than the outgoing car, with a 0 to 30 mph time of 2.6 seconds and the ability to get to 60 mph in 8.4 seconds. That’s less impressive when you remember Tesla’s using batteries and motors to send a far heavier car to 60 mph in under three seconds, on par with cars from Lamborghini and McLaren. To be fair, Tesla’s car is four times the price.
The Volt’s not just better than its predecessor, it’s cheaper. It starts for $33,995, about a grand less than what you’d pay for the current version. And there’s room in the backseat for three, though whoever’s in the middle will have to put one leg on each side of the cupholders that fill the space between the front and the back. Good news is, you’ll be driving, so let the kids fight it out while you enjoy the heated seats and steering wheel up front.
Active safety systems let the Volt nudge you back when you drift out of your lane on the highway. You’ll be alerted if a car’s driving by while you’re backing out of a parking space, or if you’re about to rear-end someone because you’re looking at your phone.
And the Volt parks itself, but poorly, at least when it comes to perpendicular spots. It twice left itself in an embarrassingly crooked position, once in a wide open spot with no car on either side.
Better, Not Best
These features, though, are now common on $30,000 cars. And that points to Chevy’s biggest problem: The Volt is thoroughly better than the car that came before it, but that won’t matter much to consumers comparing it to its current competition.
In the next few months, we’ll likely see new generations of the all-electric Nissan Leaf and hybrid Toyota Prius, which offer different approaches to cutting gas. And the Volt’s no longer the only plug-in electric hybrid available. The new car will have nearly a dozen competitors, including models from Toyota, Ford, Porsche, and BMW.
The excitement of the original Volt, the arrival of the EV as savior, is gone. Chevy’s made a fine car, even if it does park like my grandmother. But better may not be good enough.
We’ll have to see more from Nissan and Toyota before we have a good feel for how the Volt compares, but at least we know the newest Chevy is in the game.