The Chevy Volt is a sleek and rakish compact hatchback that legitimately offers the best of both worlds: As a plug-in hybrid, it can run totally electric for much of everyday driving, with an EPA-rated range of 53 miles, and switches to gas for longer runs.
It’s in the second year of its much improved second generation, and boasts high build quality than what is found on pre-2016 models. Some consumers believe the second year is the sweet spot for a new car, saying any first-year bugs have been worked out while still looking new and sporting the latest technology. The 2017 Volt checks that box.
New Car Test Drive named the Volt Best Commuter Car for 2016.
The only things new for the 2017 Chevrolet Volt are available adaptive cruise control, and a new color. The 2017 Volt only comes as LT and Premier, the latter with more equipment.
The Volt uses two motor-generators to power the front wheels. They get their juice 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 get that full 53 miles, because it will use up its charge at a faster pace. On the other hand, it isn’t burning gas when you don’t want it to.
Among plug-in hybrids, that 53-mile range is beaten only by the BMW i3 REx, with 73 miles. But the Volt makes up for it in the gas-driving department, because it has a larger fuel tank and can go farther without refueling, out on the road. The BMW needs to be refueled about every hour, while the Volt can go another 380 miles on its 8.9-gallon fuel tank. There’s almost no comparison anyhow, because the Volt is a real car; the BMW uses a tiny two-cylinder engine that can’t always deliver full power.
The Volt’s internal combustion engine is a 1.5-liter four-cylinder making 101 horsepower. It was a new engine for this second generation, greatly improved. 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. It can accelerate from zero to 60 miles per hour in eight seconds, putting a knowing smile on your face when you pull up beside a Prius at a stoplight. As the light turns green, roll down your window and shout, “Put that in your Prius pipe and smoke it!”
The 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 never spend a penny on fossil fuel. As long as it’s not below freezing outside. The gas engine might not come on under full throttle, but it does when the outside temperature drops below 32 degrees, using fuel to heat the cabin.
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 energy in a gallon of gasoline, if not that gallon itself. The 2017 Volt hits a strong 106 MPGe.
From depleted, 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.
Neither the NHTSA nor IIHS have crash-tested the 2017 Volt, which comes standard with 10 airbags and a rearview camera with sharp resolution. The previous generation Volt earned five stars from NHTSA Top Safety Pick from the IIHS, so we can’t imagine this one going backward. 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.
The base 2017 Volt LT starts around $34,000 before any incentives, while a fully optioned Volt Premier can exceed $40,000. Volt qualifies for a $7,500 Federal income-tax credit, a $1,500 California purchase rebate, and various other state, local, and corporate incentives.
The Volt is a low, crisp, sleek wedge. Gone and not missed are the slab sides of the previous generation; now there are lines to accent the angularity. The sharp nose sweeps back from the ground, through the headlamps and fenders to the steep windshield and rising window line. It makes the car look like its leaning forward, almost like a sprinter in blocks at the starting line.
But the rear window is steep too, so it doesn’t look cut off at the back. 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 unfortunately resembles the entry-level Chevy Cruze sedan a bit too much. One might also see the Honda Civic in the Volt’s profile, and Subaru Legacy in the taillamps.
The first-generation Volt tried too hard to be futuristic in the cabin, but this second-generation Volt does a good job of coming back down to Earth. The gimmicks are gone. It’s still a twin-cockpit design, accented in black and silver with some elegance, while two-tone interiors are available for those wanting to make a statement. 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, hardware you would expect in a Chevrolet. The crisp resolution of the eight-inch touchscreen in the center of the dash makes it easy and relaxing to view. A power flow diagram is shown there, although it’s really just a thing to satisfy curiosity that wears off on about the second day, though it may be of interest to your passengers.
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, but the center rear seat is compromised by the battery pack underneath. In fact, GM doesn’t call it a seat, they hedge and call it a “seating position” (not unlike “cheese spread” as opposed to actual cheese).The seat is basically just a padded cushion with shoulder belt, and the unlucky passenger there has to spread his feet and straddle the tunnel that contains the batteries.
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 and blocks the area up against the rear of the car. This makes the excellent standard rearview camera important. The image is crisp and displayed on the 8.0-inch center screen, best we’ve seen in a compact car.
There’s very little wind noise thanks to the sleek aerodynamics. By the same token, the car is so quiet, under engine use at highway speeds, that tire noise is high. The tire rubber is harder for low rolling resistance, to increase fuel mileage, and that makes them louder.
The electric power is good, no worries about keeping up. There are switches that reduce the power to extend the range, but even when they’re activated the Volt doesn’t feel stretched, it remains quick and smooth. The second generation shed a couple hundred pounds, and it shows, especially from zero to 30 mph. Unlike some plug-in hybrids, the engine delivers full power from a low speed.
The Volt feels heavy for its size, not lithe, but the center of gravity is low so it corners flat, with decent feel from the electric power steering. It’s easy to drive, if not sporty. It’s calming. It’s lively, enjoyable on twisty roads, with no fuss about much. You can certainly hear the engine at full throttle, but it’s like a remote hum.
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 because with so many electric cars and plug-in hybrids it’s so strong it’s intrusive.
When the Volt was introduced for 2011 to much fanfare, the cautionary word was: Wait for the second generation. The word was wise. This second-generation Volt is worth buying, and the 2017 Volt is the second year of the second generation. Smooth, powerful, efficient and good-looking. The biggest drawback is the back seat, only okay for four people.