The 2016 Chevrolet Volt is the first full redesign of GM's pioneering plug-in hybrid, and it benefits greatly from substantial improvements across the board. Electric range is now within shouting distance of some dedicated electric vehicles, while its gasoline fuel economy is up considerably. A much-improved cabin also goes a long way toward making this one of the best plug-in hybrids on the market.
What Is It?
There are many efficient hybrids out there, but for some the Holy Grail has always been the electric vehicle. The original Volt hatchback sought to combine the two by pairing a medium-size battery that enabled a decent amount of electric range, with a gasoline engine to keep things moving after the batteries ran down.
The idea was sound, as it eliminated the dread of range anxiety altogether. But the approach used by the first Volt didn't fully exploit the potential of the plug-in hybrid concept. Sure, 35 miles of electric range (later bumped to 38 miles) was decent, and 37 mpg of gasoline fuel economy was pretty good, but neither number was compelling enough on its own.
All of this changes with the new 2016 Chevy Volt. It's still a compact hatchback, but significant advances in range and efficiency make it a legitimate alternative to pure electric vehicles.
What Kind of Range and Mileage Does It Deliver?
The 2016 Chevrolet Volt boasts an electric range rating of 53 miles, a massive 39 percent increase that's likely to keep the average driver running on juice all day. When they do run out of electric power, they'll enjoy fuel economy that has jumped to 42 mpg combined. Total range rises to 420 miles despite a smaller 8.9-gallon gas tank.
Those are legitimate numbers, too. We drove a new Volt on an overnight trip totaling 253 miles. With a light foot (but not hypermiling light), it traveled 56 miles on the outbound leg before switching to gasoline. After that, it managed to deliver 37.7 mpg despite a side trip over a steep grade. The next morning we selected a flatter route through coastal farmlands, and went 62 miles before the Volt began sipping fuel at 42.1 mpg.
Those kinds of numbers get our full attention, as there are few competitors that can deliver that kind of all-electric range and fuel efficiency.
How Does It Work?
On the original Volt, its dual electric motors and gasoline engine were linked through a single planetary gearset. The larger of the two motors (111 kilowatts) did most of the work, with the smaller one (55 kW) pitching in to bolster performance.
Once the battery ran down, the smaller motor switched roles and became a generator driven by the gasoline engine, which rendered it unavailable to help with propelling the vehicle. High speeds, therefore, required direct mechanical help from the gas engine, which had to multitask and do two jobs at once. It's true the Volt's engine powered a generator whenever it was running, but it sometimes moved the car along, too.
The 2016 Chevrolet Volt flips the original setup on its head. There are now two interconnected planetary gearsets, and the dual electric motors are closer in size. The larger 87-kW motor maintains a lead role over the smaller 48-kW motor, but they share the job of propelling the Volt across the full range of speeds.
When it comes to the gasoline engine, its prime role when the batteries run down is now mechanical propulsion, with periodic power generation being a secondary gig. The electric motors busy themselves with regenerative braking, occasional power bolstering and speed regulation chores similar to the electronic continuously variable transmissions (e-CVT) used by Ford and Toyota in their hybrids.
The 2016 Chevrolet Volt is not an extended-range electric vehicle toting its own backup generator like the BMW i3. It's a part-time EV that morphs into a conventional yet sophisticated hybrid when its battery runs down. In fact, the same system will appear intact — without the plug-in battery — in the upcoming 2016 Chevrolet Malibu hybrid.
What's Under the Hood?
A sophisticated new engine makes this possible. The original Volt's noisy 1.4-liter iron-block lump is history, replaced here by a modern all-aluminum 1.5-liter four-cylinder with a few tricks up its sleeve.
Among them is direct injection, which allows for a higher 12.5-to-1 compression ratio. There's also a new broad-spectrum variable valve timing system that enables the engine to swap between the typical Otto cycle and the more efficient Atkinson cycle at will.
This vastly more flexible and efficient engine now makes 101 horsepower on regular gas instead of 84 hp on premium. No wonder GM engineers are pushing it to center stage.
The electric motors have been redesigned for light weight and an 80 percent reduction in their use of pricey "heavy" rare-earth metals. The smaller motor now has simple ferrite magnets, and the larger one uses so-called Reduced Dysprosium technology. Further savings comes from a power electronics housing built directly into the transmission case, which eliminates last year's sizable underhood enclosure and bulky orange power cables.
All told, the second-generation Voltec drivetrain has shed 100 pounds, a big reason why the entire car has lost 243 pounds and now weighs just 3,543 pounds.
What About the Battery and Charging?
The Volt's signature T-shaped lithium-ion battery is still here, but it has also been thoroughly reengineered. Internal changes to the cell packaging have shaved another 20 pounds, while storage capacity has risen to 18.4 kilowatt-hours.
Moreover, the new battery's maximum power output is 120 kW, up from 110 kW. This dovetails nicely with the powertrain improvements and weight loss program to improve EV-mode acceleration to a claimed 8.4 seconds from zero to 60 mph. Our most recent test of a 2013 Volt resulted in a 9.5-second run in EV mode.
The capacity of the onboard charger for the new Volt has risen from 3.3 to 3.6 kW, which means this slightly larger battery doesn't take much longer to refill. The EPA rates the charge time on 240-volt Level 2 power at 4.5 hours. GM claims 13 hours on a 120-volt Level 1 wall plug — short enough for an overnight refill without costly Level 2 home equipment.
How Does It Drive?
Roll into the throttle and the Volt pulls away smoothly. It's more responsive and snappy around town and it's quieter just about everywhere. There's less road noise much of the time, but the big payoff comes when the engine is running. More of a purr than a growl, the more refined 1.5-liter engine sounds (and feels) more distant and remote. Sure, the volume goes up when climbing a grade, but it's dramatically less raucous.
The chassis is essentially unchanged, sticking with the simplicity of front struts and a rear twist beam. It nevertheless glides down the road with an admirable smoothness, soaking up pavement imperfections with little fuss — except for a time or two when the rear seemed it could use a smidge more suspension travel.
Winding roads expose an eagerness and coordination that persists as long as you don't push too hard. A peek underneath reveals what it may lack: the rear Z-link from the Cruze once again didn't make the cut. Through it all, the steering responds to commands willingly, though it could stand to be less heavy and indistinct right around center.
What Is the Interior Like?
Inside, the new Volt is unrecognizable, which is very good indeed. Gone is the weird center stack and its hard-to-use flush-mounted touch-sensitive controls. The 2016 Volt has simpler and more intuitive buttons and knobs spread logically across the sweep of an attractive cockpit.
The center stack is occupied by an attractive new MyLink 8-inch touchscreen audio system with USB and Bluetooth audio support. Response times are quicker than the older system in our Chevrolet Colorado, and this version supports Apple CarPlay and Siri Eyes Free voice controls for those with an Apple iPhone.
CarPlay sends certain native Apple apps like music, podcasts, audiobooks, messages, phone and Apple Maps to the touchscreen itself, where the integration is seamless. On-screen navigation with Siri voice control can be free this way — if you can deal with Apple Maps instead of Google Maps, Waze or others Apple doesn't support.
Our Premier trim model has very comfortable height-adjustable leather seats, which are nicely complemented by a chunky telescoping steering wheel that pulls back generously. Driver and front passenger headroom and legroom are just as accommodating as last year, and it's easy to see out.
In back, the most obvious change is three-across seating, though the middle spot requires a wide stance to deal with the broad battery tunnel. This doesn't detract from its use as a perch for a child seat, though, and the 60/40-split seatback now prevents contents from spilling forward from the cargo area. With 10.6 cubic feet of available space, the hatch area is the same size as before.
What Features Are Available, and How Much Will It Cost?
In years past there was just one Volt trim level, but now there are two flavors.
The LT base model costs $33,995, exactly $1,000 less than last year. And don't forget the $7,500 federal tax credit that's available. The LT is equipped much like the outgoing Volt, but now a back-up camera is standard and you get that larger 8-inch touchscreen infotainment system.
Notable options include leather seating, an eight-speaker Bose stereo upgrade and heated front seats, steering wheel and mirrors.
Step up to the Premier, which goes for $38,345, and all of that comes standard. It also comes with an automated parking system, heated rear seats, a wireless charging pad for smartphones, an auto-dimming rearview mirror and unique 17-inch wheels with an ultra-bright finish.
If you want the optional built-in navigation, you have to step up to the Premier model. It also offers optional blind spot monitoring, lane-departure warning and a cross-traffic alert system, along with lane-keeping assist and forward collision warning with automatic braking.
What Are Its Closest Competitors?
Larger and more spacious is the 2016 Ford Fusion Energi plug-in hybrid. The price gap is wider than its $34,725 base price suggests because its smaller battery only qualifies for half of the $7,500 tax break. It can only travel 20 miles as an electric vehicle, at which point its gasoline engine starts working, earning 38 mpg.
The 2015 Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid also combines the efficiency of a hybrid with a plug-in battery. But it can only go 11 miles before turning into a regular Prius, and its smaller battery is only eligible for a third of the $7,500 tax credit.
Why Should You Consider It?
In a stroke, the 2016 Chevrolet Volt has graduated from science project to strong contender deserving serious consideration from fence sitters, die-hard Prius owners and Nissan Leaf enthusiasts alike. With 53 miles of electric range, it'll be a full-time EV for many buyers, with the added security of an engine to keep it going indefinitely — at 42 mpg, no less.
Why You Might Think Twice About It?
Any plug-in hybrid costs more than a regular car, and the tax credit doesn't come off the purchase price; it's not a rebate. Depending on where you live and the local price of gasoline and electricity, an economical compact may yet be cheaper in the long run.
And the 2016 Chevrolet Volt is still not a pure electric vehicle. It does contain and can consume gasoline, which may repel certain folks who want a pure unadulterated EV experience.
Finally, after this report was first published, GM announced that the 2016 Volt will only be sold this fall in California and "other select states" in which the current Volt is a strong seller. Prospective Volt buyers in the bulk of the country will have no choice but to think twice about it and wait until early 2016 when the 2017 Chevrolet Volt is set to be released.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.