The Chevrolet Volt is a plug-in hybrid compact sedan with striking looks that are sleek and wedge-like. It offers the best of both worlds, able to run on electric power for 53 around-town miles, then switch to gas power to reach the next charge or the end of the tank of fuel on a road trip. If you don’t have a long commute you’ll rarely spend any money on gas.
Volt’s quality and capability were vastly improved for its second generation, so much that New Car Test Drive named it the Best Commuter Car for 2016. It’s now in the third reliable year of that generation. It didn’t change much for 2017, as there were no bugs to work out, nor has it changed for 2018.
Volt uses two motor-generators to drive the front wheels. They get their power from a lithium-ion battery pack with a capacity of 18.4 kilowatt-hours. One thing different about the Volt from most other plug-in hybrids, is that even under full throttle, it doesn’t switch to gas; this means that if you drive it hard under electric power, you won’t be able to go 53 miles, because it will use up its charge at a faster pace. However, it isn’t burning gas when you don’t want it to.
One exception: the engine will switch to gas power when the outside temperature is below freezing. It does this to heat the cabin.
Alternatively, the Volt can go far on a tank of gasoline: 380 miles on its 8.9-gallon tank.
It takes nine to twelve hours to fully charge the Volt, using any household 120-volt outlet and the conveniently located charging cable in the car. Using the optional 240-volt Level 2 charging station, that time is cut to four and one-half hours.
Among plug-in hybrids, Volt’s 53-mile range is topped only by the BMW i3 REx, with 73 miles. But the i3’s tiny two-cylinder engine isn’t powerful.
For all practical purposes, the Chevrolet Volt has no competitors among plug-in hybrid cars. However, if a commuter is fixed on electric power, but finds that 53 miles a day isn’t quite enough, he or she might look at the Chevy Bolt, an all-electric subcompact whose range is a world-beating 200 miles.
Volt’s internal combustion engine is a 1.5-liter four-cylinder making 101 horsepower, new for this generation. Combined with the motor-generators, the total horsepower is 149 (111 kilowatts), with an impressive 294-pound feet of torque, as much as some V8 pickup trucks. Volt can accelerate from zero to 60 miles per hour in eight seconds, quicker than a Prius; and that’s an all-electric versus gas-powered drag race, because the Prius switches to gas power under full throttle while the Volt stays with electric.
Volt’s combined EPA rating, using both electric and fuel power, is 42 miles per gallon; but that’s almost meaningless because it’s hypothetical and theoretical, based on some average person’s combined city-highway driving. An owner who never leaves the city might get infinite miles per gallon; indeed, some say they use their engines only enough to ensure the gas stays fresh.
Another rating that applies to plug-in hybrids is Miles Per Gallon Equivalent (MPGe), defined as the distance a car can travel electrically on the amount of energy contained in a gallon of gasoline. The Volt hits a strong 106 MPGe.
In crash testing, the NHTSA gives the 2017 Volt five stars in every category, and the IIHS rates it a Top Safety Pick+ when equipped with automatic emergency braking. It got top IIHS scores in every category accept headlamps, as the standard LED headlights were rated Acceptable. The optional automatic high beam units on Volt Premier earned the top Good rating.
Safety equipment includes 10 airbags and a rearview camera with sharp resolution. Optional safety equipment includes adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitors, rear cross-traffic alert, lane-keeping assist with lane-departure warning, forward-collision warnings, and automatic emergency braking.
Chevrolet Volt LT ($33,220) and Volt Premier ($37,570) qualify for a $7,500 federal income-tax credit, a $1,500 California purchase rebate, and various other state, local, and corporate incentives. (Prices are MSRP.)
Volt is low, crisp and rakish, with character lines that accent the edges. The sharp nose sweeps back through the headlamps and fenders to the steep windshield and rising window line. The Volt looks like it’s striking, or zapping, or whatever a volt does.
The rear window is also steep, so the wedge isn’t chopped. The rear deck is high but not flat, while the liftgate has a single glass panel.
There’s not an actual grille, rather a two-panel design to look like one, using a diagram-like pattern that doesn’t offer much distinction from the entry-level Chevy Cruze.
There no gimmicks on the instrument panel to amuse you or try to persuade you that electric cars are cool. The first gen Volt was like that, good riddance, Volt owners agree. So this Volt has come back to Earth after its taste of being a spaceship.
The twin cockpit is accented in black and silver with some elegance, while two-tone interiors are available. The quality of the materials is high, and the touch is soft.
The gauges and instruments are easy to read, while the switches and controls are intuitive. Knobs for audio and climate control are conventional Chevy hardware. The eight-inch touchscreen in the center of the dash is easy to view, with crisp resolution. One exception to what we said about no gimmicks is the screen’s power flow diagram, which satisfies initial curiosity but then you stop looking at it.
The front seats are low but the side window deepens at the windshield pillar, giving the effect of a higher seating position. The seats have good bolstering and were comfortable for us after a long day driving.
Headroom and legroom in the rear is okay if not generous, but the side glass narrows back there to accommodate the roofline, making the rear feel tighter than it is. The outboard rear seats are separate and reasonably comfortable buckets. This car is in practical terms a four-seater. The center rear seat is compromised by the battery pack underneath. It’s mostly just a padded cushion with shoulder belt, and the passenger there has to spread his or her feet and straddle the battery tunnel.
Rearward visibility for the driver isn’t very good, especially over the shoulder, and also in the rearview mirror, as the sloped single-panel rear window reveals much of the rear deck, which blocks the space immediately behind the car. It’s unnerving to be tailgated, and in the rearview mirror you can’t see the front of the tailgating car, only the face and eyes of the driver. It makes it feel like the tailgating car is much closer than it is.
With poor rearward visibility, it’s important the Volt’s standard rearview camera is so excellent. The crisp image, displayed on the 8.0-inch center screen, the best we’ve seen in a compact car.
Thanks to the sleek aerodynamics there’s very little wind noise. However the silence of the rest of the car allows the tire noise to be heard; and tires on a high-mileage car can be louder because the rubber is harder for low rolling resistance. It’s an engineering challenge facing electric-car builders and tire-makers. Next invention will be a miracle tire.
The electric Volt not only keeps up with traffic in the city and suburbia, it zooms around it. On and off the freeway for short trips. There is a mode that reduces the juice in order to extend the range, but even in that mode the Volt stays quick and smooth. And unlike some plug-in hybrids, the engine delivers full power from a low speed. Standing start to 30 mph is impressive.
The Volt lost a couple hundred pounds with this generation, but it’s still far from lithe. It feels heavy for its size, however the center of gravity is low so it corners flat. The feel of the electric power steering is decent.
It’s lively, and enjoyable on twisty roads, but it’s not sporty, it’s simply easy to drive, making it calming.
The powertrain allows both motors to power the front wheels together, or one motor to drive the car while the other recharges the battery; sensors tell it to do what’s needed, or what’s most efficient, so smoothly that the driver can’t feel it and never knows, unless he checks the power-flow diagram on the display screen.
Another thing you can barely feel is the regenerative braking, which is really good. With some electric cars and plug-in hybrids it’s so strong it’s intrusive.
The Volt is smooth, powerful, and handsome. Shows its chops as a plug-in hybrid. Fun to drive, though not much room in the rear. With its all-electric range of 53 miles, and government and marketing incentives, the cost-per-mile numbers might work.
Sam Moses contributed to this review, with staff reports.