The 2013 Chevrolet Volt is the third model year of Chevy's unique range-extended electric car, and after a challenging start and a lot of bad media, it has emerged as the best-selling plug-in car in the U.S.--selling at a faster rate than the Nissan Leaf battery electric hatchback and the new Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid.
The four-seat, five-door hatchback has a handful of tweaks for 2013 that have raised its electric range a bit--from 35 to 38 miles--and boosted its EPA efficiency rating from 94 to 98 MPGe. The odd abbreviation stands for Miles Per Gallon Equivalent--a measure of how far a plug-in vehicle can travel electrically on battery energy equivalent to that contained in 1 gallon of gasoline.
Despite its challenging first 18 months, the Volt is a remarkably good car that's fun to drive, economical, and a credit to its General Motors engineers and designers. Part of its challenge is that it's sized as a compact car, with fewer seats and less luggage capability than the Chevrolet Cruze gasoline model, a four-door sedan that's half its price (or less).
But the plug-in Volt is targeted at an entirely different market than the high-volume Cruze: early adopters, electric-car enthusiasts, environmentalists, and those who like the idea of driving on grid electricity instead of gasoline made from imported oil. It has the highest owner satisfaction ever recorded for a GM vehicle, and its owners are probably its best sales force, walking friends and neighbors one at a time through the mechanics of how a car with only about 40 miles of electric range can, in fact, meet their daily needs and still dispense entirely with range anxiety.
Increasingly, the 2013 Chevrolet Volt is pulling in buyers who never even 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.
It's the Volt's unique "series hybrid" powertrain, also known as a range-extended electric vehicle, that gives it those dual abilities. The Chevy Volt plugs into wall current—for many owners a standard 120-Volt household plug, otherwise a faster 240-Volt Level 2 charging station—through a port in the left front fender to recharge its battery for 25 to 50 miles of all-electric range. 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.
The Volt's T-shaped lithium-ion battery sits in the wide tunnel between the seats and below the rear seat, powering the 111-kilowatt (149-horsepower) electric drive motor that drives the front wheels. When the pack is depleted, the car's range-extending 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine and its attached generator seamlessly switch on, generating more electricity to keep the car in motion for another 250-plus miles. (There’s one exception under which the engine adds power to that from the motor, but never mind—you’ll never know.)
More than 75 percent of all U.S. vehicles travel 40 miles or less each day, so Volts charged up at night may not turn on their engines for weeks at a time. But with the engine on, it'll do 300 miles, then refill the 9-gallon tank, and it'll knock off the same again--with the EPA rating its engine-on operation at 37 miles per gallon. While that's not as good as the 50-mpg Toyota Prius, the Volt is smoother, faster, and a whole lot more fun to drive.
The actual effective MPG a Volt delivers depends entirely on how much the driver can travel on battery power recharged from the grid versus burning gasoline. A handful of Volt owners who plug in regularly, and travel mostly short distances, report effective mileage well over 100 mpg--and a few have complain that the Volt's software maxes out at "250+" mpg.
In appearance, the Volt's chunky, slab-sided design isn't to everyone's taste. The windows are shallow, the cowl is very high, and the tail is high enough that the Volt has a two-part rear window, just like the Toyota Prius. We're not fond of the obviously fake silver grille, its largely blank panel a simulation of the twin-opening Chevy front end. But by now, we're used to the styling, and while the Volt is hardly as iconic as the Toyota Prius, it's noticeable and attracts its own attention.
Inside, the digital instrument cluster and the central display screen have excellent graphics that clearly convey as much or as little operating information as the driver chooses. 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. Flashy abstract patterns on door and interior panels are an option, as are a glossy white-plastic dash treatment that looks like nothing so much as an Apple consumer electronics product.
The 2013 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. The battery and electric systems are warrantied for eight years or 100,000 miles, far longer than most gasoline powertrains. 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.
All 2013 model Volts sold in California and New York are fitted with the extra emissions equipment that qualifies them as "enhanced advanced-technology partial-zero-emission vehicles"--or e-AT-PZEVs. They also come with a longer 10-year/150,000-mile warranty on the battery pack and other mechanicals. In California, that status qualifies Volt drivers to travel in carpool lanes with only a single occupant.
The 2013 Chevy Volt starts at $39,995. A navigation system is 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 Cruze. But Volt buyers aren't comparing it to the Cruze but to other plug-ins, which for 2013 include the all-electric Leaf, Ford Focus Electric, and Coda Sedan (in California only), and the Toyota Prius Plug-In. In the same category but considerably pricier are the $100,000-plus Fisker Karma, and now the electric Tesla Model S now in production starting at $57,400 for the lowest-range model.
The most important thing to take away about the 2013 Volt is that it is a real car with real-world abilities--not a golf cart, or a science project, or a 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.
For more details, see the full review of the 2013 Chevrolet Volt on our sister site, TheCarConnection.