You know a lot about the 2011 Chevrolet Volt, one of the first mass-produced plug-in hybrids available.
You know that you can plug the Volt into a traditional wall socket to recharge its battery in order to provide miles and miles of electric-only range, at which point the Volt's gas engine fires up to maintain the battery's charge and provide propulsion assistance. And we've extensively detailed how the Volt's powertrain works.
You know all this because you're an informed and loyal — not to mention devastatingly attractive — IL reader. But what is the Volt like to drive, and to live with, and is it as efficient as you've heard? It's a car, after all, that strives for efficiency in every detail.
The Volt's complexity might make you think it's some kind of science project, and in a sense, it is. Yet for all the cold zeroes and ones underpinning its sophisticated powertrain, the 2011 Chevrolet Volt implores us to examine the human side of the transportation equation.
Electric-only operation is exceptionally quiet, as you might expect. Our average range in this mode worked out to 33.9 miles, which falls near the middle of GM's estimate of 25-50 miles per full charge. Range in electric-only mode is rather sensitive to driving style, terrain and ambient conditions so here's another data point — driven conscientiously in a range of driving conditions, our best electric-only range was 39.1 miles.
Dropping the transmission selector into "L" and clicking the button for Sport mode is the most responsive way to drive the 2011 Chevy Volt. This approach livens up both ends of the throttle pedal's response, sharpening tip-in and delivering stronger "engine braking" (regenerative braking) when you lift. If you select Mountain mode a few miles before you climb a long grade, the Volt runs the gas engine overtime in order to build a large buffer charge in the battery that enables the Volt to climb any grade at a steady 70 mph.
Once the battery is depleted, the engine enters the equation with a noticeable thrum that you hear rather than feel. Beyond its endearing hybrid-y clicks and whirs, something in our production-representative Volt tester periodically groaned noisily and vibrated the brake pedal, which was not so endearing. There was also a low roar at high speeds that sounded like wind noise, but its intermittent nature suggests it has to do with the powertrain. Still, the overall noise level is less intrusive than in many other hybrids, and few can even approach the Volt's silence when it's operating in electric-only mode.
Hitting the "Gas"
We first tested the Volt's acceleration in electric-only mode, and measured 0-60 in 9.2 seconds (8.8 seconds with 1 foot of rollout like on a drag strip) while the quarter-mile breezed by in 16.8 seconds at 81.5 mph.
Then we repeated the acceleration test in gas engine assistance mode. It turns out that gas makes the Volt cook, particularly as the speeds rise. Sixty mph comes up in 9.0 seconds (8.6 seconds with rollout) and the quarter-mile improved to 16.6 @ 85.5 mph. That increase in trap speed is telling. The gas engine significantly contributes to the Volt's scoot.
Power delivery, whether in electric-only operation or when assisted by the gas engine, is seamless and instantaneous. There are no gearchanges to interrupt the seamless wave of propulsion and no throttle lag or blurps or pauses when the gas engine comes online or offline. The Volt's thrust around town is sharper than its acceleration numbers suggest, due to the robust torque available at low speeds. As speed climbs past 50 mph or so, the power delivery becomes blunted as the electric motor peters out, but in all the 2011 Chevrolet Volt is a suitably perky thing.
Chassis and Braking
The Volt's strongest dynamic points stem from its rigid chassis and smart suspension tuning. This results in a compliant ride that strikes an appropriate balance between control and softness. Unlike the hollow-feeling Prius and Insight, the Volt feels substantial — in the best way possible — and its quick steering has a natural build-up of effort. It'd be a heck of a stretch to describe the Volt as sporty, but it sure drives more sharply than your average hybrid. The Volt may weigh 3,742 pounds, but it moves as if it's 3,500 pounds.
Hybrid cars have hybrid brakes that juggle regenerative braking and the action of the conventional stoppers. To date, no hybrid-hawking automaker has successfully emulated the natural brake feel of a decent conventional brake system, and the Volt is no exception. There's an indecisive and nonlinear response from its pedal during routine driving that could benefit from some more fiddling by GM engineers. The Volt's outright stopping performance of 124 feet from 60 mph is a good showing, especially when you consider that it wears low-rolling-resistance P215/55 R17 all-season tires.
In our standard handling test regimen, we measured the Volt's outright grip at 0.77g and a slalom speed of 60.2 mph. Its Goodyears howl comically before you can even whisper the words "slip angle," an audible confirmation of the Volt's mission as a commuter car.
In and Out
One of the ways the 2011 Chevrolet Volt cheats the air is with the use of a low-slung front airdam that scrapes loudly on the smallest dips and humps (good thing it's black plastic) and a steeply raked windshield that results in a deep cowl. Fortunately, visibility is pretty good, though there's also a big blind spot over your shoulder due to the Volt's rising beltline and massive C-pillar.
Front-seat occupants have space aplenty and comfy seats. Room in the backseat is snug for full-grown adults — a Fusion Hybrid has a lot more legroom than a Volt. And, sure, the Fusion can hold five people, but how often does anyone really ride the hump in the backseat? For a family of four that includes two children, the Volt's cabin and cargo area are sized right.
The terrifically sharp dual LCD displays and touch-sensitive center stack dominate the stylishly trimmed cabin. There's a lot going on in the center screen, which controls not only the navigation (standard equipment on 2011 Volts), climate control and audio but also logs per-charge range and provides efficiency tips.
Not everyone in the IL ranks warmed up to the white plastic touch panel's interface. Sometimes it took a tap-tap-tap to register a command, while other times it would inadvertently call up, say, the climate control when your knuckle brushed against the panel.
Making Sense Using Dollars
When it comes to calculating the Volt's efficiency you have to consider that the Volt has two fuel tanks — one is for electrons and the other is for gasoline. The sticky part here is that one tank's capacity is measured in kilowatt-hours, which are rather different sorts of things from gallons. Quite a quandary.
Here's a workaround — pretend you're pumping money into those tanks instead. Since energy in either form costs money, dollars make for a convenient universal unit. Then you can compare your total running cost to any other car, or a lawn mower, even a margarita blender.
During its time with us, our 2011 Chevy Volt tester consumed energy at the rate of 39.0 kilowatt-hours per 100 miles when in electric-only mode and averaged 31.1 mpg in gas engine assistance mode. We paid an average of $0.31 per kilowatt-hour of electricity and $3.31 per gallon of 91 octane swill, so the magic of arithmetic tells us that each one of the Volt's miles driven on electricity cost us more money than if it'd simply consumed gasoline instead. That's due in part to our high electricity rate — had our rate dropped to $0.24 per kilowatt-hour, we'd have reached parity on a cost-per-mile basis between electrons and dinosaurs. That's a pretty achievable bogey as the average base rate in the states where the Volt will be sold in the first year is $0.16 per kilowatt-hour.
Your Costs Will Vary
This brings us to the crux of the plug-in hybrid cost situation, which is that the cost of electricity varies tremendously based on provider, region, season and time of day, plus there may (or may not) be special rates for plug-in hybrids and EVs.
Many consumers will save money by plugging in rather than running the Volt on gasoline. Others will not. Figuring out those costs is a devilishly complex exercise, and would-be Volt buyers are urged to contact their utility provider, who will work up an analysis to help determine the cost of plugging in.
First, though, you'll have to decide whether the Volt's sticker is something you can swallow. The Volt starts at $40,000 and our tester, equipped with leather, a back-up camera and polished wheels, totaled $43,685. A federal $7,500 tax credit helps to soften the blow. There's also the cost of the high-voltage fast charger that you will really want, as it allows access to lower electricity rates. Besides, recharging with the wall socket is like filling a swimming pool with a syringe.
A Peek Into the Future
Plugging in will require people to change their driving habits, and that's not something Americans do readily. How's this for irony — it's entirely possible that the Volt's gas engine may breed complacency among traditional consumers since it's not absolutely necessary to plug in.
Ultimately, the Volt raises more questions than it answers because never before have a car's running costs been so dependent on the consumer who's using it. For the best results, the Volt encourages — no, demands — consumers to scrutinize, analyze and quantify their driving habits and energy consumption.
The 2011 Chevrolet Volt is a significant car, a bold experiment that forces the issue of personal energy consumption to the fore. But the most tangible promise of the Volt is simply that it drives better than more established hybrids, deftly distilling its formidable technology into a package that suggests that the future of personal transportation has a glimmer of hope.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
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