Now available at selected Chevy dealers in all 50 states, the 2012 Chevrolet Volt range-extended electric car has become the favorite automotive whipping boy of politicians and commentators who don't like electric cars, General Motors, and/or the Obama White House's support for plug-in vehicles.
And that's a shame, because the various uproars--over Volt sales, a battery pack fire in a wrecked Volt three weeks after a crash test, and so forth--threaten to overshadow the fact that the Volt is a remarkably good car that's fun to drive, economical, and a credit to its General Motors engineers and designers.
The 2012 Chevy Volt is a compact five-door hatchback with four seats. But calling the Volt a compact car misses the point. It may be about the size of its compact sibling the 2011 Chevy Cruze, but the plug-in Volt aims at an entirely different market: early adopters, electric-car enthusiasts, environmentalists, and those who like the idea of driving on grid electricity instead of gasoline made from imported oil.
The chunky styling isn't to everyone's taste, with its narrow windows, high slabby sides, and very high cowl. We've gotten used to it, and the car is definitely noticeable, if not necessarily as iconic as the Toyota Prius hybrid. And it doesn't help that the silver grille is obviously fake, its largely blank panel offering a simulation of the twin-opening Chevy front end.
Inside, excellent graphics on the digital instrument cluster and the central display screen convey as much or as little operating information as the driver chooses. Flashy abstract graphics for the door panels are an option. The front seats are comfortable, though space in the rear is tight, and the controls are easy to understand. The twin-cockpit dash uses many controls recognizable from the Cruze, but in a more upscale presentation.
But it's the Volt's unique powertrain, known as a series hybrid or a range-extended electric vehicle, that's the key to its special status. The Chevy Volt plugs into wall current—either a standard 120-Volt household plug or, with a Level 2 charging station, a 240-Volt circuit like those used by electric stoves—through a port in the left front fender to recharge its battery for 25 to 50 miles of all-electric range.
The T-shaped lithium-ion battery pack is carefully packed into the wide tunnel between the seats and the space under the rear seat, with the 111-kilowatt (149-horsepower) electric drive motor up front driving the front wheels, and the range-extending 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine and its attached generator on top of that. It takes 7 to 10 hours to recharge a fully depleted pack using 110-Volt household current. With a 240-Volt Level 2 charging station, usually installed in the owner's garage, it takes less than half that time.
Because more than three-quarters of U.S. vehicles travel 40 miles or less each day, Volts recharged every night may not use their range-extending engines for weeks at a time. But when the battery is depleted, the range extender switches on—pretty much imperceptibly—not to power the wheels, but just to turn a generator that produces more electricity to keep the car in motion. (There’s one exception under which the engine adds power to that from the motor, but never mind—you’ll never know.)
That range extender completely eliminates "range anxiety," which GM argues is the key drawback of battery-electric vehicles like the Nissan Leaf. The 2012 Volt is capable of taking occupants on those longer trips, whether spontaneous or long-planned, with all the range of any other car--more than 300 miles between battery and gas tank. Refill the 9-gallon tank, and it'll knock off another 300 miles, with the EPA rating its operation in range-extending mode at 37 miles per gallon. No, that's not as good as the 50-mpg Toyota Prius, but the Volt is smoother, faster, and more fun to drive than the ur-hybrid.
In electric mode, the EPA rates the 2012 Volt at 93 mpg-equivalent, using a calculation that looks at how far the car will travel on the amount of electricity with the same energy content as one gallon of gasoline. That's just slightly less than the Nissan Leaf's 99 MPGe, and considerably better than the only other range-extended electric car on the market, the much heavier and more luxurious 2012 Fisker Karma--which is rated at a comparatively dismal 52 MPGe.
So what kind of MPG a Volt delivers depends entirely on how much of its travels are done on battery power recharged from the grid versus burning gasoline. Some Volt owners who plug in religiously and travel short distances report effective mileage well over 100 mpg--and a few have even complained that the Volt's software maxes out at "250+" mpg.
The 2012 Volt is a top safety pick of the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety, and received top ratings from both the IIHS and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Starting with cars built in February 2012, Chevy added reinforcements around the battery pack structure and changed the coolant filler for the pack to avoid the remote possibility of pack fires in the days or weeks after a severe accident. But no Volts have experienced battery fires on the road, and while Chevy is offering a retrofit to owners of Volts built during 2010 and 2011, it's a voluntarily update, not a safety recall. The battery and electric systems are warrantied for eight years or 100,000 miles, far longer than most gasoline powertrains.
The cars built starting February 2012 also have another change if they're going to be sold in California: They are fitted with the extra emissions equipment that qualifies them as "enhanced advanced-technology partial-zero-emission vehicles," or e-AT-PZEVs, along with a longer 10-year/150,000-mile warranty on the battery pack and other mechanicals.
That e-AT-PZEV status qualifies their owners for special green stickers that will allow them to travel solo in High Occupancy Vehicle lanes. But those enhanced Volts are sold only in California, and buyers in that state need to be aware that not all 2012 model Volts have the updates. If you're considering buying a 2012 Volt in California, make very sure you know which kind you're getting.
For 2012, Chevrolet knocked $1,000 off the price of the Volt, meaning it now starts at $39,995. But the navigation system is now optional, joining polished chrome wheels and special paint colors as some of the few options offered on this otherwise well-equipped car. Volt buyers are eligible for a $7,500 Federal income-tax credit for purchasing a plug-in car, along with a raft of other state, local, and corporate incentives.
That's still expensive for a car with less space for people and cargo than the 2012 Cruze, which starts at less than half the price. But Volt buyers aren't comparing it to the Cruze. It competes with other plug-ins, which in 2012, include the Leaf, the Karma, a new Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid, the Coda Sedan (in California only), and perhaps even the Mitsubishi 'i' minicar.
Instead, the 2012 Chevrolet Volt attracts buyers who may never before have considered buying a Chevrolet or GM product. Volt owners are fierce and passionate advocates, and they're used to being stopped on the street and explaining the nature of the car with two power sources.
Most important of all, the Volt is a real car. It’s not a golf cart, or a science project, or some weird two-seat aero-blob. It has all the conveniences you’d expect in a compact car, plus some you wouldn’t. It’s fast, it rides well, it costs only pennies to run on electric power, and it’s enormously smooth and quiet.
And, it has the highest owner-satisfaction numbers of any car GM has ever built.
For more details, see the full review of the 2011 Chevrolet Volt on our sister site, TheCarConnection.