Not Yet the iPod Moment - 2011 Chevrolet Volt Long-Term Road Test

2011 Chevrolet Volt: Not Yet the iPod Moment

May 16, 2011


Ever since we took delivery of it, I'd been hesitant to spend any time with the Volt. Seemed like too much ionic voodoo to wrap my head around, too many lights, colors, buttons and pie charts. But Dan Edmunds suggested I do my 90-mile round-trip a few times and see how far a charge would go. I'm glad he did.

Really came to like the Volt, as much for what it represents as for what it simply does as a comfortable, daily distance ranger. In my case, I rent and couldn't charge at home. I'd make the morning runs on gasoline. But after recharging at work all day, the challenge became getting home solely on battery.

I did it once. Made it from the Edmunds garage to home with a little left over, then circled the block to run it dry. That evening, traffic flowed fairly well once out of the constricted Santa Monica/LAX arteries. Kept it largely between 58-62 mph, stayed in the slow lane, and tried to coast and minimize braking. No A/C, drove it in "L" gear. Most days I made it nearly within a mile of my off-ramp.

As a pavement-eater, the Volt measures up. Its seats are comfortable, almost sporty, and the lack of a rear seatback makes the cabin feel bigger (an optical illusion that distracts from the scarcity of legroom back there). The wacky Volvo-esque center stack makes for an irritating knee rest, and the headliner has an odd honeycomb-like print to the fabric.

There are plenty of storage nooks: door pockets, behind the shift stalk (good for cell phone, parking pass), in front of the shift stalk (good spot for the key), center console, even a covered tray space in the upper instrument panel. There are at least three 12v power points, which somehow you expect in this kind of car. Doug Newcomb plans a full Volt audio review, so I'll just say the Bose system delivers plenty of headroom, clarity and - personal favorite - a three-band EQ.

On the road, the Volt feels substantial, heavy even. Not overweight really, just meaty. A distinct difference from a Prius or Insight. You feel it when you give it some steering input, but it suppresses roll pretty well. A sporting chassis obviously isn't the priority here, but you can tell that the suspension team didn't just phone it in.

Just past my on-ramp is a long transition sweeper that drops you into the flypaper called the San Diego Freeway. Given some pedal at speeds that one needs to merge ahead of a rig, the Volt tracks confidently through the long bend. It leans, but never gave up grip and felt like it had some to spare. It felt like what you think a Chevy should feel like. Solid. Dense. Still, you're always aware you're swinging around a 435-lb. battery array back there.

The only overwhelming disappointment was the Volt's sketchy braking. I just couldn't get accustomed to the artificial feel, and that faint click you hear when first applying force, then pushing your foot through a mushy zone with minimal feedback. I never got a good feel for the required force and found myself underestimating stopping distances a few times (thankfully with no consequence).

Additional gripe: when letting off brakes, before going to throttle, an annoying high-cycle hum fills the cabin. Is this simply a by-product of the motor switching to its generator mode? As with the brakes, a Volt owner would probably adjust and accommodate. But this drove me kinda nuts everyday. Loud music will mask it, but it's ever present.


Thus far, the Volt performs best in moderate to heavy traffic. My record of 47.2 e-miles stood for maybe a week, until Dan Edmunds shattered it with a 54.6 e-mile drive during heavy congestion. Now we're thinking 60 is within range. During my week with the Volt, I averaged 46.02 miles per battery charge, and 37 mpg on gas.

I admit I wrote off the Volt in the beginning as a sort of quixotic experiment. Maybe GM just wanted everyone to forget about the EV1 public relations disaster. But it's hard not to feel that, yeah, this is the future. For most people, the costs are still nebulous and hard to calculate. No one can really be sure without doing some real homework that they're not just shifting pump expenses to the electric bill.

The electric car/plug-in hybrid world is ripe for its iPod car, the game-changer that shows everyone how easy and convenient it is. The Volt is not that car; too expensive for even adventurous motorists. But it's accelerated the conversation. Even my 8-year-old neighbor knows what the Volt means.

And eventually we'll all get one. An e-car, or variation thereof. And just as many of us know that MP3s, while convenient, still suck for fidelity, and we start reaching back for turntables and LPs, so too will we reach for the keys to that analog V8 in the garage, primed and ready for refined dinosaurs anytime that pleasure receptor needs a scratch.

Dan Frio, Automotive Editor

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2011 Chevrolet Volt Research