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

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

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.

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

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

While the Volt has only half the  power of the Tesla, it puts out only a bit less peak torque (273 lb-ft to the Tesla's 317 lb-ft). Adjust for the Volt's lighter weight (3780 lbs vs. 4650 lbs for the Model S), and the Volt actually has a better torque-to-weight ratio.

And because of its more aggressive low-end throttle mapping in Sport mode, the Volt actually feels more responsive pulling away from a traffic light than the Tesla.

(We're assuming light-to-moderate pedal pressure, typical of everyday driving. When you floor it, of course, the Tesla blows the doors off the Volt.)

Whenever I transition from Tesla to Volt, my first few take-offs in the Volt tend to be a bit jumpy as I adjust to its more responsive accelerator.  And when I go back to the Tesla, it feels a little lethargic pulling away from a stop in normal driving.

So, yes, on paper, the Tesla far outperforms the Volt.  But in normal every-day driving, the Volt feels surprisingly close.

Ride and Handling

Let me be up front about this: I am not a high-performance driver. I don't go screeching around twisty mountain roads. The only four-wheel drift I've ever done was in an icy parking lot at 20 mph.  Heel-and-toe? I read about it once.

So my opinions here apply to my comparatively sedate everyday driving--a bit faster and more aggressive than your average shmo on the road, perhaps, but well short of the aggression of the typical car-magazine test drive.

With that behind us, I have to say I don't notice a lot of difference between the ride and handling of the two cars.

Both have a heavy, solid, smooth feel.

Both steer with alacrity and precision. (Among the Model S's three options for  steering feel--Comfort, Normal, and Sport--I typically use Comfort mode.)

Both cruise smoothly over typical bumps with a muted rumble.

And both are exceptional highway cruisers.

My sense is that the Model S's air suspension makes its ride a tad firmer than the Volt's.  At times the Tesla seems just a bit harsh; I'd like to see an adjustable suspension with a slightly softer (as well as a sportier) option.

In terms of ride and handling, both cars are superb in normal driving. I'd call it a toss-up.


As a  bigger car, the Tesla has more interior space for driver and passengers.

By my tape measure, Tesla front-seat riders have about two inches more shoulder room. The advantage tapers to an inch in back.

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

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

The Volt's big drawback in comfort is its limited rear-seat knee room.  I'm 6'2", so when I push the driver's seat all the way back, the poor soul sitting behind me is likely to have his knees crushed. In the Tesla, there's sufficient--though hardly copious--space for adult kneecaps in the rear, no matter how tall the driver.

Rear-seat headroom, however, is another matter. My head makes hard contact with the Model S headliner in the back, requiring a slight slouch. In the Volt, on the other hand, I can sit fully upright in the back with only a few wisps of hair brushing the ceiling. Score one for the Volt.

But with this single exception--a tall guy in the back seat--all my passengers much prefer the Tesla.

For the driver, I've found, the question is not so clear-cut.

Once in the driver's seat, I find both cars quite comfortable. The seats are comparable. The Tesla feels more spacious, but it's mostly a visual effect. Some may even prefer the more intimate cockpit of the Volt. Call it a toss-up.

But getting in and out of the two cars?  Definitely not a toss-up. For a tall, creaky guy like me, climbing into the Tesla--with its low roofline, swooping windshield, and narrow door opening--is a pain in the butt (or in my case, the neck and back).

Whenever I transition to the Volt, with its wider door opening, I breathe a huge sigh of relief as I slip much more easily into the driver's seat.

Overall verdict on comfort: Tesla by a nose, with an asterisk for tall drivers and tall rear-seat passengers.

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

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

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

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


The compact Volt, with its battery pack running down the middle of the car, is strictly a four-seater. The Tesla is touted as a 5+2, with the option of two rear-facing child seats in the cargo compartment under the hatchback.

Without the kid seats, the rear cargo area is huge. With back seats folded down, it becomes humongous. And then there's the front trunk--which Tesla insists on calling a "frunk"--an auxiliary cargo space where the Volt stashes....an engine.

For me, the question of utility is mostly academic. In two years, I've had to leave behind a fifth passenger in the Volt maybe twice. I've not yet had occasion to use anywhere near the Tesla's available cargo space. (In fact, I've yet to use the front trunk at all.)

And through an accident of geometry, it turns out that my extra-large size mountain bike slips into the Volt more easily than into the Tesla, due to its marginally wider hatchback opening.

The way I keep score, the Tesla's advantage hauling a rare fifth passenger is balanced by the Volt's bike-carrying advantage. I'd call it even. But the Tesla becomes the obvious choice if you're always hauling lots of stuff, or regularly transporting that fifth passenger.


In terms of ultimate utility, the elephant in the garage is the Tesla's limited range and slow "refueling" time. Until the Tesla Supercharger quick-charging-station system is fully in place, the Model S simply doesn't work for me on trips more than 180 miles.

To the chagrin of hard-core electric-car proponents, I've always believed that there has to be a gas engine in the family somewhere. After three months of owning a Volt and a Tesla, I've not changed my view.

Yeah, I know: Plug-in devotees have taken Teslas on long cross-country trips. Hooray for them.

Frankly, I'm not willing to plan my whole trip around finding charging stations.

Case in point: a recent overnight visit to a friend 200 miles away. Theoretically, this is within the car's EPA range of 208 miles. Am I willing to cut it this close? No chance.

But suppose I had managed to get there, cruising at 55 mph with A/C off. And suppose I'd found a charging station somewhere nearby. That still means the friend has to come pick me up at the station, then drop me off the next morning.

Why not just plug in at my friend's house?  No way: To charge the Tesla's 60-kWh battery fully from a standard 110-Volt outlet takes two full days.

So my trip was a no-brainer: Take the Volt.

In three months of Tesla ownership, I've now made four trips where I had to take the Volt.

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

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

Until the day that Superchargers are installed at 150-mile intervals along the New York State Thruway and New Jersey Turnpike, "Take the Volt" will be a familiar refrain in my household.

Range Loss in Winter

The Chevy Volt suffers a fairly dramatic loss of electric range in winter. In my experience, it drops from 40-plus miles in summer to as low as 25 miles when the temperature falls to the teens. That's about a 40-percent loss.

If you do the math, the Volt uses about 250 Watt-hours per mile in summer, and 400 in winter. Annual average: 320 Wh/mi.

Since I've never run the Tesla's battery down to zero--and hope never to do so--I can't pinpoint actual range. But the car does report its efficiency. In February, I averaged about 360 Watt-hours per mile, compared to about 320 Wh so far in May, a difference of just 11 percent.

I expect  efficiency to keep improving as the weather warms up. Whether the ultimate difference is 12 percent or 15 percent, it's still a huge improvement over the Volt. Tesla engineers are clearly the unchallenged masters of battery management.

Overall, the way I drive it, it looks like the Tesla's annual efficiency will average about 320 Wh/mi--virtually the same as the Volt. 

My results match the EPA numbers fairly closely:  35 kW/100 mile for the Tesla, 36 for the Volt. (Multiply by 10 to get Wh/mile.)

Considering that the Tesla is almost half a ton heavier and has better performance, that's a big win for the Model S.

Random Things I Like Better About the Volt

*Tire-pressure monitoring system.

The Volt has an on-demand readout of current pressure in each tire.

The Tesla, by contrast, has only a crude  "Tire pressure too low" or Tire pressure too high" warning that comes on when necessary.

I've also been getting  "Check tire-pressure monitoring system" alerts. (My Tesla service guy assures me these are spurious.)

*Center Console

The Volt has a standard console with both open and closed storage spaces. The Tesla has only an armrest, with two cup holders that appear when the armrest is slid back.

The Tesla's open floor between front passengers' knees gives a feeling of spaciousness, but there's no place to put stuff.

Sunglasses, wallet, insurance card, driving glasses, 5-Hour Energy shots, and the like simply get thrown on the floor. There are low rails that prevent stuff from sliding around, but it looks messy.

So I recently purchased a Center Console Insert (CCI) from an independent company called Teslaccessories. It snaps into place between the floor rails and provides a better-placed cupholder and a small closed storage area. It's a big improvement.

Tesla is readying its own factory drop-in center console, which its website says is "coming soon."  

Not soon enough, if you ask me.

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

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

*Regenerative braking system

Both cars have two regen settings: a "Normal" that feels like a standard gas car when you back of the accelerator, and a more aggressive setting that slows the car rapidly and pumps more energy back into the battery.

In the Volt, the settings are selected by the gear lever: D for the standard setting, L for the aggressive one.  It's easy and intuitive to flick back and forth between the two settings, depending on traffic and hills. It's actually a lot of fun, like downshifting in a stick-shift gas car.

The Tesla, on the other hand, requires the driver to change regen settings through the touch screen. Typically, it takes up to three taps to find the right screen and make the change. That rules out on-the-fly adjustments.

The Volt regen system has a further advantage over the Tesla: It's not affected by cold weather.  In the Model S, the aggressive regen is limited below about 50 degrees and turned off altogether below about 30 degrees until the battery warms up. This can take as long as 20 or 30 miles of driving.

*Battery state-of-charge indicator

The Volt's 10-bar State of Charge (SoC) gauge is a bit crude, but it's better than the Tesla's vague sliding bar, which has no delineation whatsoever.

Virtually all electric cars have SoC indicators of some sort--even the cheapest one available, the 2013 Smart ForTwo Electric Drive, has a nice little dial that that reads down to 1 percentage point. It's bizarre that the super-expensive, cutting-edge Model S lags so far behind in this respect.

Random Things I Like Better About the Tesla

*Dashboard touch screen.

No doubt about it, the 17-inch touch screen in the Tesla Model S is way better than  the Volt's tiny screen and confusing welter of buttons.

The Tesla screen's many virtues are well known, so I won't go over them here. Suffice it to say that anything else seems utterly primitive by comparison.

*Getting software updates

In almost two years, I've gotten one upgrade on the Volt--which required taking it in to the dealer. (I waited for a regular service appointment to get the upgrade.)

In three months with the Tesla, I've gotten two software upgrades, both remotely over the car's 3-G wireless connection.

Remote is better. Duh.

Bottom Line

If I could keep just one car, which would it be?

I guess if you put a gun to my head, I would reluctantly give up the Volt.

The style, performance, and overall pizzazz of the Model S are simply too compelling to give up.

The Tesla's charms would far outweigh the annoyance of having to rent a noisy gas-guzzling combustion-engined car for long trips.

Decision point: Sept 2014

Fortunately, no one is putting a gun to my head. I'll definitely be keeping both cars until September 2014, when the Volt lease expires.

By that time, hopefully, there will be a full network of Superchargers around the Northeast (and the rest of the country).

When that happens, the Model S will finally be in a position to make its case as the best car in the world.

David Noland is a Tesla Model S owner and freelance writer who lives north of New York City.


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