Tesla Model S Vs Chevy Volt: Owner Compares Electric Cars

2011 Chevrolet Volt and 2013 Tesla Model S [photo: David Noland]

2011 Chevrolet Volt and 2013 Tesla Model S [photo: David Noland]

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I've been leasing a 2011 Chevrolet Volt for almost two years now. And about three months ago, I took delivery of a 2013 Tesla Model S, the 60-kWh version.

So I've gotten an extended first-hand look at arguably the two most technically advanced production cars in the U.S.--and the two best-selling plug-ins so far in 2013.

Although not precisely comparable--the Tesla is pure electric, while the Volt has a range-extending gas engine to back up its battery--driving the two cars back-to-back on a daily basis has highlighted the pluses and minuses of each.

So how do they stack up against each other? And which do I prefer?

The Tesla, But.....

The bottom line, of course, is which car I choose to drive when I walk out to my driveway each morning. 

By this measure, the Tesla  almost always wins.  It's hard to resist the sleek, powerful, head-turning Model S, which Consumer Reports recently raved about--saying it "performs better than any car we've ever tested."

The Volt has been mostly relegated to duty as my 17-year-old daughter's student-driver car, as well as an occasional long-distance back-up for trips beyond the Tesla's range. (My wife, a fanatical stick-shift devotee,  stubbornly clings to her 2008 Mini Cooper.)

But that doesn't mean the Volt isn't a great car.  At half the price, it's damn near as good as the Model S in a lot of ways--and superior in a few. 

In fact, driving the Tesla has only confirmed my long-standing appreciation for the Volt.

So how do they compare?  Let's count the ways.


No surprise here: The Tesla outperforms the Volt.

The Model S has more than double the electric horsepower of the Volt (302 to 149). Its 0-to-60-mph time of  5.9 seconds blows away the Volt's 9.0-second number.  Top speed is 120 mph, compared to the Volt's 100 mph.

When I take friends for rides, the Tesla's seamless, silent, ear-flattening acceleration always elicits the same reaction: giddy, uncontrolled laughter.

"Like a roller-coaster ride," one friend commented. The Volt can't come close to matching the Tesla's balls-to-the-wall fun factor.

But you know what? In normal real-world driving, the Volt in Sport mode feels nearly as peppy and responsive as the Tesla. More so, in some circumstances.

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Comments (63)
  1. Thanks for the excellent comparison. I appreciate all of your articles about your experiences with the Tesla and the Volt. It is very informative to potential buyers and those interested in PHEVs and BEVs

  2. I agree. It's great to hear from someone who owns both cars.

    My only problem is the last sentence.
    "By that time, hopefully, there will be a full network of Superchargers around the Northeast (and the rest of the country)."

    I believe super-chargers and battery swapping stations are both dead-ends. The future belongs to FlexFuel EREVs. EREVs can replace 80% of gasoline consumption. Bio-fuels can replace 35% of gasoline consumption with NO affect on food supply. Together, that's 115% - more than enough to completely replace gasoline, all using our current infrastructure of home electricity and liquid fuel filling stations. What's not to like?

  3. Having a vehicle that's twice as complicated and carrying around an ICE you hope never to use. Longer range EV's and fast chargers are preferable to some of us.

  4. Most people drive less than 40 miles a day. Lugging around a 250 mile battery pack is wasteful.

    I suspect most of the people who desire electric cars are engineers. They love the simplicity of design. The general public is less enthralled. They want flexibility, value, and no limitations.

    Range extenders are in their infancy. There will be a huge amount of innovation here. For example, Sterling engines use external combustion, so there's no popping explosions. This dramatically reduces noise, which simplifies the exhaust system, while improving efficiency, and allowing any type of liquid fuel source. Another example, DEFC range extenders use no moving parts at all.

  5. "Most people drive less than 40 miles a day. Lugging around a 250 mile battery pack is wasteful."

    By that logic, no one should fill up their tank with more than 2 gallons of gas!

  6. "Range extended" cars, or more appropriately, PHEV, are only here because people are too scared of range anxiety. It makes no sense for almost anyone. the PHEV will die out as people get over range anxiety.

  7. NO affect on food supply? That statement defies the laws of physics. Because of all the fertilizer that is earmarked for our lawns, even our lawns affect the food supply.

  8. Cellulosic ethanol requires no fertilizer.

  9. That is true, but we don't exactly have any Cellulosic ethanol in this country. Good luck making it cost 3 dollars a gallon, or even work at scale for that matter. Most ethanol costs more energy than it makes in the US.

  10. The cars are very closely matched, so I made the no-brainer decision: I got the Volt, and am not looking back. For half the price, and with a proven reliability record (the best of ANY car in Consumer Reports 2011 evaluations!), and with no range anxiety, I'm a happy de-Volt_ee. BTW, it's made in Detroit!

  11. Lets see, buying a Volt is a no-brainer and 4950 people bought Teslas last quarter. That's a lot of people with no brains! BTW, the Model S is made in Fremont, California, and i've been to Detroit. I don't see how that's a plus for the Volt.

  12. Norm. Get your facts straight first. Tesla had reservation holders waiting on bated breath for many years, not months. They finally got the production ramp up and are whittling down the backlog. You'll be surprised how few cars they can ship once the reservation backlog dries up. And believe me, that's the main reason Tesla will no longer publish reservation numbers and Elon is up to his smoke and mirrors tricks to drum up more reservations. Volt is the winner here.

  13. No need for a winner; we should be glad both cars exist so that more citizens can find greener transportation options that fit their needs.

    Leaf, Volt, Tesla, Prius - I'm happy for them all!

  14. The Volt is a silly car for people who are too scared of a BEV. It makes no logical sense for most people. It is a car of compromise that I am not a fan of, but it is better than a nonplug in. That is the only plus, it is a transition vehicle for the scared.

  15. It's not over, and, in fact, it's not a race.

  16. Ed Kim: More facts to get straight:

    Now, six months later, "believe me", Tesla remains production constrained. US demand has not abated, European deliveries are booked to start in seven months tops, Asia - China, in particular - follows that, and Model X is supposed to start production in ~one year. Tesla has plenty of money, and history suggests the company will execute well.

  17. It's a plus for Detroit, which sorely needs a winner like the Volt. I don't have the money to buy a Tesla but a lot of people do. I didn't comment about the brainage of the rest of the population, but it's pretty smart to get two Volts for the price of one Tesla.

  18. Stay classy, Norm... Some people actually root for Detroit instead of taking cheap shots at it.

    And as others have noted and you've clearly chosen to not comment regarding, let's see where Tesla sales are in a few months when the multi-year wait/reservations are over. I wish all EV manufacturers well, especially Tesla, but none of us here have the slightest idea if sales will maintain the current pace once

  19. We now have the Volt and Leaf, but our multicoat 85kW Model S, standard, equipped like the one Consumer Reports tested, arrives in the next 10 days to replace the Leaf.

    I agree that the Volt is an incredible overall package and the best engineering in any "hybrid" to date. When our Volt lease is up in January 2014, I will consider actually buying the then current one, BUT I am leaning more to the incoming BMW i3, since I want more pure electric range and a backup ICE with my cutting edge engineering.

    I am greatly disappointed that the Cadillac ELR has so little new technical evolution and such a bloated proposed price.

  20. @George: I'm not aware that Cadillac has said anything at all about the ELR price. Have I missed something?

  21. John, I won't presume to speak for George, but he's probably reading what I'm reading... Lots of recent estimates, all at about $60K. Just conjecture, at least what I'm reading, anyway...

  22. John,

    There are several interviews with GM executives where the consistent comments have suggested a base price seriously north of $60,000.

  23. The last 2 years spent driving my Volt tells me I'd be happier with an i3 if it had a 40kWh battery to go with its motorcycle engine. I can't wait until higher densities start rolling out.

  24. With a 40kW engine, the gas engine makes no sense. Why would you want a PHEV with a 40kW battery? Why get a PHEV?

  25. Great article David!

  26. Nice article. My decision time is December of 2013 and I'm afraid I need to cut loose the Volt and get the Tesla S. I need to carry a wheelchair when I go out with the family and the Volt is thereby limited to 3 passengers - too small. What happened to the larger SUV-style Volt we were promised 2 years ago?


  27. Thanks David! That makes me feel much better about my plans to "settle" for a volt in the near future.

  28. You'll love it, Mittar. And eventually, when you're ready for the next vehicle, Tesla or someone else will have something even better for you... I now root for battery/tech advancement almost as strongly as I do for certain teams... I'm hoping to go from my Volt to the i3 or a Tesla Model S (X?) in 2015, but we'll see...

  29. That was a great comparison article David. You covered everything I pretty much have wondered about in terms of daily ownership of the 2 vehicles. It sounds like the perfect car would be a Tesla with either a range extending engine, or a battery with 500 mile range and rechargable in 10 minutes.

  30. Thanks for the article! Loved it. Leasing a 2013 Leaf now and am already making plans and reading up on other EV's and other types of cars that utilize alternative fuels. I like the Tesla, Volt, BMW and am seeing VOLVO may come out with something as well all when my lease is up! I now prefer driving an EV and not having to listen to the extra noise of an ICE.

  31. The Tesla is a fantastic car if price is no object, but if it were priced at $40k like the Volt, it would approach perfection.

  32. What an interesting comparison but first I think your wife must be awesome in that she loves manuel driving .The Volt and the Model S are two of the most remarkable cars and your insight illuminating .I believe the Volt was sabotaged by Consumer Union/Reports because of bias against GM.They have former employee's working for all the Nissan,Toyota,Hyundai and Honda which has come to light recently.Much of CR's testing is arranged to boost preferred models .Model S had Elon Musk who championed his fine vehicle till CR had to take notice all lose all cred .

  33. In the same Consumer Reports, the Volt is the most reliable car of ANY model surveyed in 2011.

  34. I'm not in the market for an electric and probably will not be for quite some time, but I thoroughly enjoyed the comparison. Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts.

  35. Man I just seen a lease deal at $189 a month with 1499 down. This is cheaper than driving a clunker or any used car that depreciates and needs maintenance and the occasional repair and uses gas. Go for it. Life is short.

  36. David, Thanks for sharing all your experience. I think Tesla and GM should seriously consider reading this.
    I get a bit more range in my Volt than you do. In the summer I get 50 mile average. In the winter I get an average of 39 mile range and never less than 37. I probably use less heat than you do.
    One note on your acceleration comparison. It doesn't sound like you have the performance version of the Tesla. In that case it would bring it down to 0-60 in 4.4 seconds. So that version may feel a bit better. I also want to note that the Volt power comes in after 10 mph. 0-10 mph the Volt is not very fast. GM did this to baby the battery. I drive conservative but am still the fastest pulling away at traffic lights without even trying.

  37. I drive my Volt with a lead foot, in Sport mode and L at all times, and so far get about 35-40 in spring/summer and 25-30 in winter. I liken the Volt 'transmission' feel to being in second gear up to 55-60mph, then an 'upshift' as the other motor clutches in.

    At 4 cents a mile, I'm happy to drive it like I stole it.

  38. Joseph - David CLEARLY stated that he has the 60 kWh version. Not only that, it's obvious when he talks about the Tesla's range. Did you read the entire article? I don't think you did. And that's a better comparison to the Volt and trying to compare 85 kWh version PLUS performance package.

  39. Easy there champ, no need to get snide on people.

  40. Try out the Sport mode and you'll get quicker acceleration.

  41. David,
    Great write up - this is probably the best review of the Volt, and I really appreciated your real world, first person comparison and review. One question - how much range (or battery SoC) are you losing on the Model S? Or have Tesla fixed the "sleep mode" problem? Thanks again!

  42. Long-awaited new sleep mode still not here. Expecting it soon. Still losing 4-5 kWh per day due to vampire losses. Total lost so far: 300-plus kWh, enough to drive 1,000 miles.

  43. Better Place Renault Fluence ZE unplugged and left at the airport for 5 days: loss of less than 1%.

  44. This is why I bought a Volt since I can afford it but can't afford the Tesla S.

    I can't wait for a larger/SUV version of the Volt and the Tesla Blue Star sedan.

    My Volt will be paid off by 2017 and hopefully, the blue star sedan will be out by then. In the mean time, GM needs to get a crossover version of the Volt out ASAP so I can replace my SUV.

  45. Between now and 2017, you can count on savings thousand$ in gas by driving the Volt.

  46. Indeed.

    With my solar panels at home and 1MW solar at work (free), I am racking up huge savings. I don't even know the gas price anyway. Even when I do need gas in my Volt it is so infrequent that I don't even notice the rise in price.

  47. Currently I'm driving a Volt (and a Cooper S, would you believe the odds?) and in a couple of days I need to decide on the specs (and purchase) of a Model S, which in my case will replace the Volt. So your timing is excellent!
    A short test drive earlier in the year had me thinking that the Model S was not as impressive as I had imagined. Its smoothness and acceleration did not seem leaps ahead of the Volt. I thought I might have had too high expectations, but it seems you feel the same.
    I was also wondering about the range in winter. My Volt sometimes gets only 30 miles. It's good to hear that the Tesla is a lot better in cold temperatures, especially since it doesn't have a range extender.
    Thank you for your excellent work, very helpful!

  48. but for me, I am ALWAYS biased with the Model S

  49. Correction: did I say my Volt sometimes only gets 30 miles? The minimum in winter has been closer to 25 miles, at least a third less than what I hope to get in summer! I had started to consider taking the 85kWh battery just to be sure. After hearing your experience I feel save sticking to the 60kWh.

  50. Here is the 30 second version of our cars: Honda Accord Plug in (17 EV range, 700+ mile total range) purchase $41K, and the Nissan Leaf (90 mile EV range) lease for $300 /month
    They both rock, I drive the Accord lighter to get 100% EV on my commute. I just like knowing I didn’t use fuel. But if I want, I can hit top freeway speeds with either car.
    Both handle well.
    Accord feels more luxurious. Leaf has good comfortable seats.
    Leaf has great truck space, Accord is limited, one key draw back.
    As far as five passengers, 5 small passengers could fit in them, the accord is a regular sized car
    Leaf 90 miles plus or minus. Accord 17 EV, plus up to 700 using fuel.

  51. Cost:
    The combination of the Accord and Leaf is the most cost effective for total acquisition cost plus when considering style/luxary/image.
    If I were only buying one car. I would have considered Tesla if I already had a gasoline car but the cost was too much when buying two cars.
    We will keep both for the foreseeable future, but in a few years it would be nice to get either a Honda with a little more range or perhaps a Tesla too. I’m glad Tesla will succeed, but they need to get the costs down by 15-20%. Then nothing will hold them back.

  52. Thanks for this GREAT comparison article. It makes me feel 100% better about going for the Volt instead of the Tesla S. I nearly cried a 6 weeks ago when I cancelled my deposit reservation at Tesla and had them announce 5 days later about the free upgrade to the base 40kw model. Was sort of kicking myself, but at the same time do not regret saving $65k. Now I have got a great Volt for lease at $280 a month which is literally $20 less than the gas I have been spending for my Lexus before. Your article makes me feel like I saved a ton $$$ without sacrificing performance. Besides now I leave real leather seats.

  53. I enjoyed the comparison. I am currently leasing a 2012 Leaf for three years. At the end of that lease I will be getting a range extended EV if the base price comes down below 32000.00 (before incentives). If Nissan comes out with a range extended, I will jump at it. I would hope that the range of the electric battery is 60+ miles. A deal breaker would be if the electrical battery had a range of less than 30 miles.

  54. David, you are very generous in your opinion of the Volt. I have a Volt and a Tesla-powered RAV4, and to me there is no comparison. There's no way I would have leased the Volt had I driven the RAV first. It's sluggish, the visibility is terrible, and the user-interface is dreadful (so is the RAV4's, but it's way more fun to drive). The RAV is much, much faster than the Volt.

    The bottom line, and you admit as much yourself, is that you drive the Tesla if you have the choice. The Volt is my car, the RAV is my wife's, and if the RAV is available I NEVER drive the Volt. Ever. Elon Musk really nailed it with the Tesla powertrain, and nothing else comes close. Not Ford, not the Leaf, and certainly not Chevy. All hail Tesla:)

  55. Well, eRav4 is almost 2 seconds faster to 60mph than the Volt. 2 seconds is a lot of distance.

    Interestingly, the eRav4 has only about 5 more HP, same torque rating and similar AC induction motor. Not to mention that it weighs about 10% more (~ 300lbs). But it is faster. It must be the gear ratio and the extra battery capacity.

  56. RAV costs $10k more than the Volt, is quicker to 60 by 2 seconds, gets 76 MPGe, is roomier and more versatile, and has 100 mile range estimate. BUT... has plenty of range anxiety!

  57. And only available in limited numbers and state.

  58. To each his own. The Volt is not the best looking car, but the Rav4 is like omg, hope no one sees me in this thing. I will keep my Volt and some day add a Tesla in my garage.

  59. There are more comments in this thread
  60. Great article. Really enjoy hearing from people who live with the cars.

    You give the nod to Tesla for better "battery management" because there is less difference between range in hot/cold weather. But then you state that the two will have nearly identical efficiency numbers overall.

    Up to a certain point, larger battery packs are more efficient than smaller packs. That a 16 kWh pack can even approach the 60 kWh battery pack for efficiency suggests to me that Tesla has some homework to do.

  61. I'm not an expert at all yet I seem to see here important information about watt/mi. Thanks to David Nolan for this excellent article and for taking the time to do research on his driving experience with the excellent Chevy volt, a dream come true for many Americans, and the Tesla Model S a car I thought would come in 100 or 200 years but is here now. With David Nolands excellent research we see that 350 watt/mi is the power needed to drive both cars. That power could be provided by solar cells on bigger efficient vehicles to save battery use and extend range further. This could rethink the transportation industry

  62. David,

    Excellent, well-written, thorough comparison of these two vehicles. Thank you.

  63. I just got rid of my 2013 Volt and bought a Tesla Model S P85+. There is absolutely no comparison in the acceleration between the 2.

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