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Chevrolet Volt review (2012 onwards)
Summary - The electric car with a range you needn't be anxious about. It looks modern, performs with sophistication and drives like a European car. Electric car motoring always feels futuristic and pleasing: here's how to enjoy it without fear.
We like - Silence, sophisticated drive, styling and interior, futuristic yet workable, viability, lack of compromise
We don't like - Seats only four, firm ride, price dependent on government incentives, extended range electric drive dependent on oil
The Chevrolet Volt is a car of the future that has arrived. Fully driven by electric, it's an EV that eradicates range anxiety. You don't need to fret about whether it'll fit into your lifestyle: if a conventional car will, so too will this.
Bold stuff? Well, it's a bold car. GM showed it as a concept 30-odd months ago, and astounded the development team by giving it the go-ahead. They had to work out how to turn the Volt into a production model against a backdrop of the company's future being questioned. The pressure was on as the Volt became the great hope of GM's future.
The designers withstood the pressure and have produced a sleek, modern, distinctive look. The sharply cut-off rear is particularly neat, and the athletically toned stance of the car is modern-looking. Details such as cool-blue daytime running lights are one of numerous finishing touches.
Since its launch, there's been a huge amount of controversy surrounding the Volt. The fiendishly clever operating modes have baffled almost everyone. "Don't think too much," says Chevrolet, "just drive it. Then you'll see, that this is an EV for the real world." Right you are...
Fully charged and operating in 'electric vehicle' mode, the Volt genuinely feels like a car from the future. You don't turn a key but press a blue 'Power' button: there's a wake-up chime like on an XBox 360, but otherwise, silence. Auto shifter into 'Drive', this continues.
At first, it's other-worldly. It's like being in church - it's so quiet as you seamlessly accelerate, occupants speak in whispers. 271lb ft of pulling power, available immediately, really gives it legs, too. Stamp on the throttle and it snaps back necks, it's so immediate.
But what about 40-ish miles in, when you've used up the electric range? Well, you don't stop and recharge. Instead, the engine generates electricity onboard and tops up the battery. What, it turns into a Prius? No. The driver's right foot isn't dictating how and what the engine does: the battery is.
Chevrolet's aim was for an electric car feel even in Extended Range mode. The driver controls the electric motors, fed by the battery. Engine? Basically does its own thing, separate to your right foot, to fill the battery back up. (Batteries never go 'flat' - instead, Chevrolet manages a buffer zone: that's how it can 'lead' with electric power and top it up later).
It usually operates in a range of 2,200rpm to (in extremes) 4,800rpm, never higher. Independence means it can be off if you floor it at 50, but then be humming away as you slow back down to 30. To best 'get' the Volt, ignore the engine: forget it. You're not controlling what it does, computers are. See it simply as an infinite drive reserve when the batteries are flat.
Sometimes, it's hard to ignore. It does drone noticeably at full load (it IS a detuned Corsa engine, after all), and gives a hint of resonance when it's working. Be smooth though, and it works less aggressively, and more quietly. It's an acceptable way of getting 350 miles' 'EV' driving rather than under 100.
Ride and handling
Broken American roads reveal the Volt's biggest dynamic gripe - a taut, pattery ride. It's a heavy car (1,700kg), so the springs are firm to stop the body rolling about. This means it's stiff over irregularities and can crack into potholes.
At speed, it's fairly well damped, while it feels 'European' through corners: competent and fairly agile. Steering is fast-geared and crisp to turn in, and the precision of the mechanism itself gives a quality feel (even if 'true' feedback is absent).
Two attractive high-res screens dominate. One for the central navigation, one for the instruments - and it's this that's the most visually intriguing. It tells you about economy, battery range, total range. Speed and fuel are there too: impressively, all this info is still, with familiarisation, easily understood.
The driving position feels sporty. The firm seats have a bucket feel and the close steering wheel is racily dished. Modern features include the Astra-like sweep of the dash and the metallic finish plastic door panels, but the feature piece is the touch-sensitive centre console.
It works like a mobile phone touchscreen - with the same 'click' feedback sound too. It looks the business and is supported by other premium details. Plastics are well assembled and while a VW beats them for quality, their low-sheen finish is still good.
There are flaws, though. Most obvious, it's four seats only. The battery eats into the middle, which also means the rear seats are shallow and firm. Headroom isn't great - space is OK rather than abundant. The boot is shallow and there's neither proper parcel shelf nor full divider between rear seats and boot.
Economy and safety
If you're able to recharge it before you 'flatten' the battery, the engine will virtually never run and you'll use minimal petrol. Those circa-40 miles will cost you four hours' electricity. Go further, and average economy is then in your hands. The further you go without recharging, the worse it gets.
Run it PURELY in extended-range mode (refilling the tank but never the battery), and Chevrolet says you can expect just under 50mpg. The firm doesn't want you to - it says grid electricity is greenest and cheapest - but the car's still fairly eco if you do need to.
The intrigue comes in the transition. Our test route was 170 miles, of typically unsympathetic launch driving. Economy at the end, including 50 miles' electric running (with a two-hour lunchtime top-up)? 64.7mpg. Impressive (the car's lifetime economy, including driving by normal people, was 113mpg!). There's proof it works.
The European Astra underpinnings mean the crash score should be good, and ESP is standard. The raked lines mean the thick front pillars are restrictively angled, and rear visibility is very poor, making the reversing camera essential. And what about luggage flying forward through that gap between the rear seats?
The MSN Cars verdict
We thought hard here, because the Volt is not perfect. It will be pricey, the ride is firm, it seats only four. It doesn't fit into an existing class so the technicalities take some brainwork. Don't think too hard though. Simply accept it works.
It's an EV if you do 40 miles a day. But it will also do 170 miles, as we did, and average 65mpg-plus. The EV that beats limitations of batteries, it's the first electric car that won't leave you stranded. The benefits of electric drive are innumerable: here's how to enjoy them now, not tomorrow.
|Need to know|
|Electric motor||Two motor front-wheel-drive Voltec system|
|Torque, lb ft||271|
|0-62 mph, secs||9.0|
|Top speed, mph||100|
|Mpg combined||0 (EV mode), 64.7mpg (MSN Cars launch test)|
|CO2, g/km||0 (EV mode), sub-50g/km (estimated EREV mode)|
|Ride & handling||***|
|MSN Cars verdict||*****|
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