2016 Chevrolet Volt First Drive: Plug-In Hybrid Home Run

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The all-new 2016 Chevrolet Volt is just about here, and it builds on all of its predecessor's virtues while resolving most of that car's vices.

It's got a lot more electric range--53 miles--and at 42 miles per gallon, it's more fuel-efficient on those rare occasions when the range-extending engine comes on.

The new Chevy Volt is smoother, faster, quieter, considerably better-looking (in our view) and should be a slam-dunk upgrade for today's Volt owners.

DON'T MISS: 2016 Chevrolet Volt - full review

Our main worry, in fact, is not the car at all.

The 2016 Volt is a fantastic electric car, with an onboard engine giving more than 400 miles of total range for the one in 10 trips that can't be done entirely on battery power.

We worry most about GM's ability to explain what the Volt is, why it's better than other plug-in hybrids, and how it blends the benefits of all-electric drive with the security of a range-extending engine when you need it.

2016 Chevrolet Volt, first drive in California, July 2015

2016 Chevrolet Volt, first drive in California, July 2015

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Marketing for the first-generation Volt was inconsistent, largely focused on gas mileage, and generally sporadic at best.

If it hopes to keep the Volt at the top of the plug-in sales chart as its 200-mile, $37,500 Chevy Bolt EV electric car looms, GM had better do some smart, thoughtful, memorable, and effective marketing.

Starting now.

ALSO SEE: 2016 Chevrolet Volt Powertrain: How It Works In Electric, Hybrid Modes

Green Car Reports was one of a handful of media outlets to drive early production 2016 Volts in mid-July.

We spent two days in two different new Volts, and came to the drive in a first-generation 2015 model for comparison purposes.

The new Volt expands on all the pluses of the old Volt, but Chevy executives said over and over that they'd listened to Volt owners in designing the second-generation car.

2016 Chevrolet Volt, first drive in California, July 2015

2016 Chevrolet Volt, first drive in California, July 2015

Enlarge Photo

So there's a fifth 'seating position'--even Chevy won't call it an actual seat--that's a padded hump on the battery pack with a shoulder harness but no headrest.

It's fine for taking a limber teenage athlete on short, around-town trips, but you wouldn't subject anyone you like to sitting back there for any length of time.

Little details matter, too, and the new Volt has a dedicated compartment in one side of the load bay that houses the charging cord--so owners don't have to unpack whatever cargo they're carrying to recharge on the road.

MORE: 2016 Chevrolet Volt: Seats Five, But Not (Really) On A Fifth Seat

The design of the new Chevy Volt is crisper, more angular, and more aggressive than the rather slab-sided appearance of the previous model, which had a high cowl and short windows.

We see a few echoes of current Honda Civic styling in some of its accent lines, but our main impression was that the Volt looks remarkably similar--perhaps too much so--to the new 2016 Chevrolet Cruze, its popular four-door compact sedan.

Sure, the Volt's a five-door hatchback, but both cars now have steeply raked front and rear glass--and Chevy exacerbated the problem by showing both the new Volt and the new Cruze in the same deep metallic blue color.

2016 Chevrolet Cruze unveiling, Detroit, June 2015

2016 Chevrolet Cruze unveiling, Detroit, June 2015

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Or, as we overheard one journalist say at the Cruze launch: "So, the Volt's the one with the silver grille, right?"

Inside, however, Chevy really took owners' criticisms to heart.

The 2016 Volt's dashboard retains the familiar Chevy twin-cockpit design, but knobs, switches, and buttons are far more conventional--and the capacitive touch switches are entirely gone, to pretty much everyone's relief.

RELATED: Should I Buy A Used Chevy Volt Electric Car?

For current Volt owners, though, it's that alluring 53-mile range that'll be one of the biggest selling points. Chevy had said "50 miles or more," and the actual rating came in at 53 miles.

Similarly, the "at least 40 mpg" fuel efficiency came in at 42 miles, with an efficiency rating of 106 MPGe. (Miles Per Gallon Equivalent measures the distance a car can travel electrically on the same amount of energy as contained in 1 gallon of gasoline.)

Moreover, given the two battery-pack size increases in the prior generation Volt--in 2013 and 2015--it's not unreasonable to expect that an updated version of the new car might gain even more electric range.

2016 Chevrolet Volt, first drive in California, July 2015

2016 Chevrolet Volt, first drive in California, July 2015

Enlarge Photo

During a period of gentle driving that started off with several miles downhill, we even got the electric range meter up to 62 miles--though the car delivered exactly 54.2 miles of electric range by the time we'd completed that drive leg.

But if battery size does increase--and the Chevy Bolt EV is coming with 200 miles of range--at what point does the Volt have "enough" range?

We suspect Volt owners will be looking forward to learning the answer to that question.

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