EXECUTIVE EDITOR ROGER HART: Getting into the 2011 Chevrolet Volt here at the office, the display showed a 71 percent charge that was good for about 15 miles. After that, the gasoline engine switched on and carried me the rest of the way home.
I plugged the car in inside my 55-degree garage and charged it overnight. Initially, the display said a full charge would happen by 4:30 a.m., and then it went to 9 a.m. When I left the house at 7 this morning, the display showed 91 percent battery, good for 26 miles. It seems as if the Volt battery pack does not really like cold weather, plus you have to run the heater, the wipers, etc.
While I can certainly appreciate all of the technology that has gone into the Chevy Volt, and it really is impressive, all things considered, you don't have to spend much time in this to realize it's certainly not for everyone. It is an extremely expensive commuter car, with room for four people. I appreciate General Motors getting out in front and doing an extended range electric, and from that standpoint it's a cool vehicle. But it's really nothing special to drive, the hard, low-rolling-resistance tires are not the most compliant, and the interior comfort isn't much better than that of the Chevy Malibu. Actually, not sure how the heating and cooling system works, but the temperature set on the controls would seem to be just an approximation. I had it set to 75 and was freezing.
Anyway, this car has a limited audience, to be sure. For around town errands, it's probably terrific. No need to buy any gasoline. But from our limited tests, a full charge will get in the neighborhood of 30 miles, and all things considered, that's not a whole lot.
EXECUTIVE EDITOR--AUTOWEEK.COM BOB GRITZINGER: For buyers in four-season climates with specific, short (20-miles round-trip) daily commutes who want to be on the cutting edge of transportation technology, the Chevrolet Volt is your poster car.
The car is really an engineering marvel that works well, changing the game to electric power from using internal combustion as primary motivation. And it does it with considerable style, given that the underlying chassis is a humble yet capable Chevrolet Cruze. For those familiar with the typically Spartan interiors in eco models, the Volt interior is top-shelf, especially in this upper-crust version. The appliance-white center stack trim (some have likened it to an iPod face) is replaced with a much more handsome darker trim, and the seats, steering wheel and other surfaces are all well done. This red paint job also wears well on the car.
What is kind of surprising, considering the hype surrounding the Volt, is just how normal it is to drive. Yes, it's a tad heavy in the corners because of the battery load. And here and there, the engine winds up in ways that are completely disconnected from the accelerator pedal. But most of the time, you have to be a car geek who is really listening for it, otherwise you'll never notice. Play the radio and you won't hear the engine, ever. The power is strong, smooth and steady-state refined in a way that most drivers will find quite impressive for a car that otherwise would be driven by a small-displacement engine tied down by an automatic transmission. Punch up Sport mode, shift into “L,” and the car becomes truly sporty in drive character.
Living with the Volt for few days revealed some of the real-world issues that an owner would face on a regular basis, not the least of which is plugging the car in every day. Sounds simple, and for buyers who upgrade to a 220-volt outlet in their garage, it would be easier because the cord would be there at the ready at all times. But I could see it becoming a pain for those who opt for standard household current, what with the bother of getting out the charging cord from its stowage under the rear cargo floor, unwinding it, plugging it in at both ends (and making sure no one launches a blow dryer on the same circuit!), and then reversing the process each morning before you drive away.
Inevitably, the Volt power cord gathers gunk and dirt from your garage floor, so you have to remember to unplug and pack up the wiring before you're dressed and ready to go to work, for instance. Some might say, “What's the big deal?” But after charging via household 110-volt outlets for a few days, I can attest that the novelty soon wears off. It starts to make stopping at a gas pump seem simple by comparison.
The novelty is further degraded when an overnight nine- or 10-hour charge in a 45-degree garage only results in a 90 percent charge, equating to somewhere between 20 miles and 26 miles of driving distance with an ambient temperature in the 40s. I can imagine that Volt owners in colder climates might just pump gasoline instead of fighting for the kilowatts on a daily basis.
For now, the Chevrolet Volt has be viewed through the same lens as any whiz-bang new technology, be it the latest smartphone, tablet reader, computer, TV or Weedwacker. The price of entry is high for early adopters, but as the technology proliferates, the cost comes down for the rest of us plodders who would rather wait to make sure the latest technology has staying power. Here's one vote saying this approach to transportation will be around for a long time.
EDITOR WES RAYNAL: I averaged about seven miles of juice on each two-hour charge over the weekend. I couldn't charge it overnight because the car stuck out the back of my garage and I didn't want to leave my garage door open all night. I'd go for the 220-volt outlet in my garage if this was my car. That, and we should drive one this summer to see whether it charges quicker and whether it goes further than 20-something miles on a full charge.
As for the driving, the transition between all electric power and running on the generator is seamless. You just press the start button, select D on the transmission and go. It's refined, and all you can hear is a quiet whine and whirr from the electric motor.
It doesn't feel quite as quick as the claimed 9.0-second 0-to-60-mph time, but it does pull away strongly and seamlessly from a stop. I thought the car rode and handled well, better than I thought it would. I was worried it would drive heavier than it did. I'd much rather drive this everyday than a Toyota Prius, that's for sure.
I agree that some version of this could well be the powertrain of the future. I wonder why this car needs such a big engine if it's only going to act as a generator. Perhaps the next one could be a small two-cylinder unit, or I've heard talk of a small turbine or rotary engine.
NEWS EDITOR GREG MIGLIORE: “Drive it like a regular car,” the keeper of the keys said as I was tossed the set to the Chevy Volt for a night. That was pretty much my only option, as my suburban bachelor pad is a good distance from the downtown Detroit digs of One AutoWeek Tower.
But nevertheless, I was excited, sort of like getting a new iPhone, when I unhooked the power cable and set sail for the suburbs. The charge meter said I had 26 miles of electricity, which got me almost exactly home, the screen indicating one mile of range when I coasted into my apartment parking lot.
That meant the ride back in was exclusively on the power of the Ecotec four-banger, as I had no practical way of charging the Volt overnight. No worries, though. This Chevy is the embodiment of new and different technology, and I consumed less than half of the amount of fuel I would have normally used.
The power is respectable when in electric mode, and passing is not a huge chore. This is by no means a fast car, but it's not dog-slow, either. In conventional mode, the Volt is still decent, but I found myself flooring it to fill gaps and build speed for maneuvers.
The steering has a nice weight to it at higher speeds, and is appropriately lighter during slower movement. The chassis is reasonably comfortable, too. Really, the regen brakes are the only interactive driver element that stand out, as they are heavy and demand a bit of pedal travel.
Inside, the Volt looks futuristic and worthy of the heady sticker. Really, Chevy had to dress up the interior or risk having its most important technological accomplishment in recent memory come across as inexpensive. But fear not, the buttons have a very modern feel, the door panels are gorgeous and the touch screen is among the best I've used. All of the information can be reasonably comprehended after a short time in the car, and it's smart and intuitive. The seats were comfortable. I found a nice driving position quickly, and the back seat offered ample legroom and headroom for a man of average build. I liked the four-seat configuration. It felt sporty, and really, who wants to sit in the middle?
I liked the sheetmetal, but the Chevrolet Volt doesn't really stand out. The taillights and blacked-out roof are cool styling cues, and the wheels and side trim look upscale. I would say the silhouette is a bit chunky, but it looks better than a Nissan Leaf or a Toyota Prius to my eye.
General Motors did exactly what it said it would with the Volt. I came away impressed with the execution. The biggest flaw is the drive character does not stand out. At times, you could just as easily be in a heavier version of the Chevy Cruze. Mainstream consumers and early adopters will like the Volt. Alas, enthusiasts will not find their passions aroused.
AUTOWEEK.COM EDITOR DALE JEWETT: OK, so I thought I could be the poster-child commuter for the Volt. The trip from the office to the family compound is only about 13 miles. I left the office with a fully charged battery pack and stated electric range of 28 miles. So I didn't even bother to look at the status of the gas gauge.
But I hadn't traveled even one mile from the parking garage before the battery indicator showed that 10 percent of the charge was already gone! And I thought I was being pretty good--no radio, no seat heaters, easy on the throttle and brake. And another 10 percent was gone before I'd racked up three miles on the trip.
Then things settled down. The flow of rush-hour traffic let me maintain a pretty steady pace of about 45 mph and also let me see braking events developing and let me keep the powertrain in regen mode as much as I could. So when I reached Casa de Jewett, the readout said I still had 12 miles of electric range left. That was good enough to make a run for some takeout and get back home without burning any petrol and two bars lit on the battery gauge.
The Volt spent the night charging in the garage. I plugged it in to the standard outlet at about 8:30 p.m., and by 6:30 a.m., the blinking green light on the dash said the pack was all charged up and ready to go. I even used the remote “start” function on the key fob to get the interior preheated while the Volt was still plugged in--and I didn't have to worry about going out and opening the garage door to vent any exhaust.
The full battery gave me a range of 28 miles, the readout said as I rolled out of the garage. That would be plenty for the drive back to work.
But the Chevy Volt is a hot property. Mrs. J asked if I could swing by her office since her boss has been jonesing for one since they were announced. Well, of course. So, 9 miles of stop-and-go driving got me to her office and left 18 miles on the range gauge. I spent 15 minutes showing off the car--doors, hood and hatch open, passing around the charging cord, playing musical chairs in the driver seat. Then, let's take the boss for a short drive. He liked it --“just like a regular car,” he said. And he was a big fan of the thrust when I nailed the throttle. “And much better than my Ram on gas,” he added. The Volt easily blended in with other cars on the road. And the interior layout and materials make you feel right at home, regardless of what you've been driving for the past five years.
OK, maybe there's a raise--or a free lunch--for Mrs. J.
But now the range gauge was down to 10 miles. That might just make it--but the shortest route to the office is also the most congested. So I opted for the longer but less congested route. It starts with a six-mile stint on the freeway. Man, rolling along at 70 mph really drains the battery pack. Getting off the freeway and onto the usual surface route, I had only two miles left on the range gauge. I nursed it for three miles, then the engine kicked in--quite seamlessly, I note.
So I managed 26 miles on the battery pack, but had to dip into the fuel tank to finish the run to the office. But tonight's driver should leave here on a full battery pack.
The Volt is a fine driver. The chassis is solid and the suspension handles the bumps with a luxury-like thump.
The lack of engine noise means you can hear plenty of tire noise, suspension noise and ambient noise from the traffic around you. The noise factor seems loudest coming from the rear seats and the hatch area of the car. But I'm a fan of convertibles, so road and tire noise is music to me. And for most drivers, they'll just turn up the satellite radio to compensate (I purposely left it off to evaluate the noise level.)
For many people, on many days, the Chevy Volt will need only battery power. It was interesting to note that the car is programmed to run the engine at least once a month for maintenance purposes. And it tracks your fuel use--if you don't burn off a tank of fuel within a year, it will run the engine to burn the gasoline before it gets stale.
But I think that having the Volt as your daily driver wouldn't be much different than having a Toyota or Ford hybrid. And I don't see any advantage to taking this car on a long trip.
Without the electric drive system, what you have is a really expensive Cruze.
MOTORSPORTS EDITOR MAC MORRISON: Finally, a taste of the Chevrolet Volt, and I enjoyed it. The battery gauge claimed 26 miles when I climbed aboard, but as others mentioned, the gauge drops by a few miles almost immediately once you start to drive. I made it about 23 miles and change before running out of juice. That was almost enough to get me home from the office. I'll tell you what, there are plenty of work days when I wouldn't have to burn any, or maybe just a tiny little bit, of gasoline.
The car is incredibly quiet running on either electric or gasoline power, and the direct drive is a little bizarre when you are used to conventional transmissions or even less conventional designs such as a CVT. This is like driving a real-life slot car in that sense.
The transition from electric to gasoline, as mentioned, is imperceptible, unlike the lurch you feel in many hybrid automobiles. I also found this car more pleasant and rewarding to drive than some of those others, notably the last Prius that I drove.
Dale makes an interesting point, that this is just a technologically (and price)-enhanced Cruze, but I like the exterior and the interior is slick, with Camaro-esque, color-coordinated door panels, a very cool dashboard design and nice switchgear.
I definitely look forward to a more extended drive in the Volt, but my first impression is that it's a great first-gen effort at changing the way some cars are powered.
ASSOCIATE EDITOR JONATHAN WONG: My esteemed colleagues more or less covered everything about this Chevrolet Volt. From a technology standpoint, this is quite the marvel. With a full charge to the battery, I hit the expressway toward Ann Arbor from downtown Detroit and cruised along at about 75 mph. Dale is correct that battery drains at an alarming rate at those speeds. The flow of traffic was steady as I rode along in the left lane, and I managed 26 miles before the gasoline engine virtually unnoticeably came to life.
It's true that this car is just a regular car. It has a comfortable ride and handles fairly well. Someone above mentioned tire noise, which isn't a surprise with the low-rolling-resistance tires. Those tires also were quick to squeal around corners when you tried to push the Volt some. Steering feel and response are OK, and the brake pedal offers a decent amount of modulation.
On pure electric, the Volt gets up and goes with ease. The lack of an engine note when you accelerate beyond 60 mph takes getting used to, but the smoothness of the powertrain really needs to be applauded here.
Visually, the car sports the aerodynamic wedge shape which isn't a surprise. It looks pretty good to my eye and the interior layout is attractive and functional. All of the different screens available to you for various readouts for range, battery charge, fuel and etc. will take a bit figure out, but they should become second nature to run through for owners. Nothing is overly complicated, which is good.
The price is still a sticking point here. For a vehicle like the Volt to truly make sense, the price of the technology needs to come down and battery technology still needs to improve to offer better range on pure electric power. All of that will come in time, but the Chevy Volt is a much better starting point than I thought it would be.
2011 Chevrolet Volt
Base Price: $41,000
As-Tested Price: $43,485
Drivetrain: 111-kW electric motor, 1.4-liter I4; FWD, two-mode electric drive system
Output: 149-hp, 273-lb-ft electric motor (84 hp @ 4,800 gasoline engine)
Curb Weight: 3,781 lb
Fuel Economy (EPA): 93 mpg-e all electric/37 mpg gasoline only/60 mpg-e combined composite
AW Observed Fuel Economy: 59.8 mpg
Options: Premium trim package including leather-appointed seating, premium door trim, heated front seats, leather-wrapped steering wheel ($1,395); 17-inch forged wheels ($595); crystal red metallic tintcoat paint ($495)
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