Review: 2011 Chevy Volt

The problem, however, was that the Chevrolet is selling every Volt it builds and there is not much motivation for the company to provide those cars to the press around the nation. A couple weeks ago, the Volt finally arrived in my drive way and, after one week and about 200 miles, I can say that GM is lucky that I gave it back.

There are few cars in GM's history that have defined the company as much as the Volt and there are few GM cars that have stirred emotions in a similar way as the Volt. It doesn't take much to figure out that the Volt is not an enthusiast's car in a traditional sense. It's not the car you chase around corners. However, it is a geek's dream. It's different than anything else I have driven so far and arguably one of the best compact sedans on the road today (if we forget the price tag for a moment.)

The Interface

The Volt's design may look a bit anonymous at first sight, but GM did actually a good job fine-tuning the shape to compensate for the massive 3800 pound curb weight. The coefficient of drag is 0.28 and it is obviously a shape that slips through the wind. The car sits extremely low in the front - just 3 3/4 inches above the ground. I noticed that the design of the car attracts attention immediately when you park. there is a sense of a space ship appearance from virtually every angle.

That impression continues in the inside. All Volts feature two 7-inch LCDs. There is a touch screen in the center console that houses all entertainment controls including the navigation system, entertainment features and climate controls. The 7-inch screen in front of the driver uses an animated driver information system that is a bit confusing at first, but easy to navigate when you get used to it. The display can be configured via a Config button to the left of the steering wheel.

The Volt is started via a push on the Power button, which launches the car with a, well, space ship-like sound. Once activated, the Volt sits quietly and you have to lift your foot from the break pedal to set the car silently in motion. If you have never driven an electric car before Accelerate the Volt and you will notice a hint of a turbine-like whine of the 149 hp electric drive unit that smoothly accelerates the car.

Our tester was the base version that stickers for $41,000 and comes standard with, a 60 GB nav/entertainment system (30 GB for music storage and radio recording), 5 years of Onstar service, an energy-efficient  Bose sound system, a configurable climate system as well as the two LCDs and a capacitive touch center stack unit.  If you don't like the cloth seats (which somewhat don't fit the upscale character of the Volt)  you will have to spend $1395 for leather, which also includes heated seats. A fully decked out Volt costs, if you can get the car for the sticker price, $43,090.

No matter what version of the Volt you choose, the tech toys remain the same. The center display uses (unfortunately) resistive touch technology and provides all the usual entertainment and climate controls, but there is always a twist toward energy consumption. For example, you will be also told how much energy your current climate settings consume. There is also access to the charging mechanism: You can determine the time of charge to take advantage of cheaper electricity rates and always get a detailed overview of your MPG rating. Of course, "there is an app for that" as well: You can remote start the Volt, lock or unlock the doors and monitor the charge level of the battery.

The driver information system is just a regular display, but I found the interface pretty stunning. It's not the grainy LCD you find in other GM cars that are close to being replaced - it's a high resolution display with fancy 3D animations and plenty of lighting effects. It fits the overall appeal of the Volt as something special.

The Battery System

Of course, there is a massive battery unit in the Volt. It stretches 5.5 feet from the center console in the middle of the car to the back and ends in a T-shape. There are 288 individual cells, each about the size of a 5x7-inch photo frame and a weight of about a pound. Add in the protective casing and you end up at 435 pounds total weight. The capacity of the battery, which is divided into 9 units (32 cells each)  is 16 kWh, which is enough, according to GM, to power an iPad for about 266 days or an iPod Nano for about 112 years.

In the Volt, a fully charged system was good for about 37 miles of electric driving range and a full charge required about 8.5 hours on average. That may not sound much, but I found that I rarely drive more than 50 miles a day and there is the "range-extending" gasoline engine and a 9.5 gallon gasoline tank, which is good for about 340 - 350 miles. After the one-week long test drive, I ended up with 1.9 gallons of gasoline used over a distance of about 200 miles.

There has been some discussion whether the Volt is a hybrid or not. Per definition, it does have a hybrid energy system, but the electric engine is driving the wheels at all times. If the battery runs out of charge (which means below a maintenance level of 35%), the 1.4 liter 84 hp combustion engine kicks in intervals, powered by periodic 0.03 gallon gasoline injections, to charge the battery. You still get the feel of driving an electric car, but you notice the gasoline engine through its noise level and a slight vibration in the accelerator pedal. The advantage over a traditional hybrid (and an electric motor supporting the gasoline engine) is that there is no gasoline wasted. If the 1.4 liter runs, it charges the battery and does not waste any energy when you are waiting at a traffic light.  At least in theory, you should be seeing better MPG. The math suggests that the Volt would have seen about 37 MPG on gasoline in careful driving and about 32 MPG in stop-and-go traffic.   

The cost of a full charge and 37 miles driving range was about $1.08 (6.98 cents per kWh), but may be substantially higher in other parts of the country.  

Driving Experience

GM says that the Volt resembles the feel of a 250 hp mid-size car. It is difficult, however, to compare the Volt to a 250 hp sedan in all aspects. Its dimensions are very close to those of a Toyota Prius, but it is more than 700 pounds heavier. GM claims that the Volt's 149 hp electric drive unit is enough to propel the car from 0-60 mph in about 9 seconds, which I have not tried, but appears to be generally credible. That's not, however, what you'd expect from a 250 hp sedan.

That said, the traveling speed of the Volt is very deceiving due to the low noise level. You almost always go faster than you would think. There are three driving settings - the normal mode, which is good enough for average driving, the sport mode, which makes the Volt a bit more responsive and the mountain mode, which automatically adds the help of the gasoline engine. I never found myself in situation where a desired to drive the Volt particularly fast. It fits best a relaxed driving style and is most rewarding, when you are simply flowing with the traffic, knowing that you aren't burning any gasoline.     

The Volt does not promote an engaging driving style. I found the steering to be rather indirect the seats not supportive enough for faster driving and the weight if the car is always very apparent in any situation. This is a massive car and it does not hide its weight.

You don’t need any special knowledge or experience to drive the Volt, but I noticed that some drivers may feel uncomfortable with the driving dynamics and the fact that the vehicle drives silently at virtually all times. Since it always runs on its electric drive unit, there is a smooth, linear acceleration characteristic that lacks the gear shifts in a traditional car. However, you quickly get used to the character of the Volt and appreciate the fact that there is no engine noise and vibration. Once the gasoline engine kicks in, you will notice a slight vibration and monotonous engine sound. The sound level will increase only if you floor the Volt, but stay the same in a normal driving pattern.

What it is

I have been asked whether I would prefer the Volt over a BMW 335d or a Toyota Prius. Realistically, I believe that it is highly unlikely that anyone would cross-shop the Volt the with a 335d or Prius. It does not have the energy of the BMW and it is a class above the Prius with a much more interesting technology. The same goes for the goal of economics. Given its sticker price, this is not the car you want to buy to save money. Instead, it is a very unique driving experience in a futuristic cockpit that bridges the gap between the past and the future of the automobile.  You always feel privileged to be driving the Volt, at least in this very early phase of the introduction of the car.

It isn't a cheap car - you have to come up with at least $41,000 + tax and if consider a Volt, then I suggest to spring for the premium package as it gives the Volt the luxury feel the car shows in many other aspects as well. $45,000 is a price that can be easily justified for this vehicle.

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