10 lessons from the short life of the Chevy Volt, 2011-2019

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2019 Chevrolet Volt

2019 Chevrolet Volt

On February 15, GM ended production of the innovative Chevrolet Volt with little fanfare. Over two generations and nine model years, the company sold more than 150,000 of the compact plug-in hybrid hatchbacks.

In automotive time, nine model years isn’t that long. The best brand names live for decades: think Ford F-150, or Honda Civic, or Toyota Corolla.

So the short life of the Chevrolet Volt is unusual.

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GM hasn’t said if its Voltec plug-in hybrid technology will survive in any future vehicles, but industry rumors suggest the company will give up on hybrids with plugs and put all its eggs in the battery-electric basket.

The Volt is much-mourned by its owners and drivers, largely in North America, along with a handful in Europe, where it was briefly sold as the Opel Ampera.

Conceived in the mid-2000s, the Volt survived GM’s 2009 bankruptcy and government-backed restructuring.

2004 Toyota Prius

2004 Toyota Prius

The company that put it into production during 2010 was considerably different from the one that developed it.

GM product czar Bob Lutz wanted a car to compete head-to-head on advanced technology with the Toyota Prius hybrid, because he felt the media gave Toyota green credentials for the Prius it didn’t deserve as it moved headlong into full-size pickup trucks and SUVs.

But that was then, and this is now.

What can the Volt’s short life and untimely departure teach us about where we are as we look into the 2020s, the second full decade of electric cars?

Tesla Model S and Roadster

Tesla Model S and Roadster

1. Tesla matters.

The Chevrolet Volt concept was revealed at the Detroit auto show in January 2007, only a few months after a crazy California startup called Tesla announced it would build battery-electric cars with 200 miles of range or more.

When the first Volt was sold in December 2010, Tesla was struggling to recover from production delays for its Roadster, including a two-speed gearbox that had to be replaced entirely, plus the general effects of the economic recession.

By 2013, however, it was clear that the Tesla Model S—however slowly it entered production—was an entirely different kettle of fish. GM convened a task force to ascertain whether Tesla posed a competitive threat.

The answer was almost surely yes, because in January 2015, the Chevy Bolt concept was announced, with 200 miles of range and a price of just $37,500. The first Bolt EV was delivered in December 2016.

All of a sudden, the Volt plug-in hybrid had sibling rivalry: a car priced about the same, but a “pure” electric vehicle with usable range.

Chevrolet Bolt EV electric car and Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid

Chevrolet Bolt EV electric car and Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid

2. Brand matters.

Often you’d hear owners saying they drove a “Volt,” entirely ignoring the Chevrolet part. The problem, suggests auto analyst Rebecca Lindland, was that “Chevrolet is not an aspirational brand for innovators and early adopters.”

“It’s critical to understand the technology adoption curve, and the people who live there. Innovators and early adopters are financially secure and risk-oriented: They want luxury, and will put up with inconveniences to be seen in the first of something. But Chevy isn’t aspirational. That was GM’s first and very, very critical error.”

While Prius owners did that too, Toyota soon expanded its hybrid technology across its model lineup, washing the whole brand with the Prius halo for those who wanted it. Lindland, founder of RebeccaDrives.com, also notes, “Toyota buyers are very different than Chevy buyers.”

Finally, for electric-car fans, GM was the company that destroyed the EV1 fleet, as chronicled in “Who Killed the Electric Car?” Even today, this site occasionally hears from people who claim they will never buy a GM car because of that action (despite the subsequent Bolt EV and Volt). In 2011, that chorus was much louder—and GM wanted recognition for its EV expertise, and perhaps absolution for what were perceived to be its sins.

2011 Chevrolet Equinox LTZ

2011 Chevrolet Equinox LTZ

3. ‘Segment’ matters

Would the Volt have done better if the second-generation 2016 version had been a small crossover utility vehicle? We’ll never know.

Despite rumors that the second-generation Volt would be replaced by a crossover, it’s entirely unclear if the Voltec powertrain (nee E-Flex) will live on anywhere in the GM lineup.

What is clear, though, is that over the Volt’s nine years, consumer preferences turned decisively away from the passenger-car segment (sedans and hatchbacks) and toward crossover utilities of every size and shape—including a few that are only front-wheel-drive hatchbacks in disguise.

The Volt, however, was the opposite of the upright Bolt EV hatchback, which GM has laughably attempted to market as a “crossover.” The plug-in hybrid was low and sleek, and its bulky T-shaped battery compromised interior room. The Volt was never going to be a crossover under any stretch of the imagination. In hindsight, perhaps it should have been.

As longtime electric-car advocate Chelsea Sexton notes, the Volt’s withdrawal “exacerbates the degree to which lack of model variety remains the biggest issue facing EVs today.”

With fully electric crossovers in the market or promised over the next two years from Audi, BMW, Jaguar, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, Tesla, and others, we may get a market test of that proposition. None will have the Volt’s plug-in hybrid powertrain, however.

2012 Tesla Model S Signature

2012 Tesla Model S Signature

4. The traditional way may be the right way.

Traditionally, new technologies enter the auto industry at the top of the product line, in the most expensive vehicles. From automatic transmissions and disc brakes to fuel injection and turbochargers, the cost and complexity of new components can better be offset by the higher prices of top-end models.

Chevy is at the bottom of the GM hierarchy, but the Volt’s mission to counter the Prius meant it had to be associated with the mass-market brand that competes with Toyota—even at a starting price of roughly $40,000 (later reduced).

Tesla, on the other hand, started with a limited-production Roadster priced over $100,000. Then it went to the Model S, at $65,000 and up, approaching double that price for the highest-end models.

Only now, a decade after it started, is it offering a long-range electric car for $35,000. While much about Tesla is far from traditional, the company trod the tried-and-true path for innovative auto technology.

Frame from 2014 Cadillac ELR video on YouTube, with actor Neil McDonough

Frame from 2014 Cadillac ELR video on YouTube, with actor Neil McDonough

5. Perhaps the Volt should have been a Cadillac

GM recently announced that its reshuffled electric-car efforts starting in 2021 will be focused on Cadillac. The greater profits on luxury vehicles may allow it to make money on electric cars sooner than if they had to compete at mass-market Chevy prices.

Looking back, Tony Posawatz, product manager for the 2011 Volt, mused that “perhaps GM should have started with a Cadillac version (given the higher costs) or introduced the originally planned crossover soon.”

Cadillac did get the ELR, effectively a luxury coupe on first-generation Volt underpinnings, but its jaw-dropping price of about $75,000—what a decent Tesla Model S cost—and the limited utility of a two-door coupe body killed it pretty much on launch.

Analyst Lindland echoes Posawatz's thought. Asked what GM learned from the Volt, she responded, “Not enough, or else the Chevy Bolt EV would have been the Cadillac XT4.”

It’s worth noting that’s the exact route Audi will take with its upcoming Q4 e-tron, to be built on VW Group’s shared MEB electric-car platform following the larger, pricier e-tron that goes on sale this year. The Q4 likely won’t arrive until 2021, but arguably GM could have beaten it to the punch in 2017 if its electric-car efforts weren’t still wedded to the Chevrolet brand at the time.

2011 Chevrolet Volt plugged into Coulomb Technologies 240V wall charging unit

2011 Chevrolet Volt plugged into Coulomb Technologies 240V wall charging unit

6. Plug-in hybrids are electric cars (mostly)

In early surveys, back in the days when “electric cars” meant Chevy Volts, Mitsubishi i-MiEVs, Nissan Leafs, or Teslas, it turned out that the plug-in hybrid Volt—with initially just 35 miles of rated battery range—covered more electric miles per day than did the early Leafs with more than twice that range.

That spoke to several factors: lack of infrastructure, range anxiety even among dedicated EV drivers, and the confidence of having a backup gasoline engine if needed. Volt owners, it turned out, were more than willing to drive electric as much as they practically could—and hence discover they covered fewer daily miles than they believed, just as usage data predicted.

EV advocate Sexton worries the withdrawal of a plug-in hybrid with comparatively long battery range “may have the unintended consequence of convincing fence-sitters to stick with gasoline only in the near term—perfect being the enemy of good and all that.”

Perhaps GM is looking further down the road. With mass-priced 200-mile battery-electric cars coming by 2025 or so—on which it says it can make money—why should it spend the money on a plug-in hybrid to serve as an electric car when it can provide an actual electric car?

Chevrolet Volt Battery

Chevrolet Volt Battery

7. Battery conditioning matters

There’s a 2012 Chevy Volt named ‘Sparkie’ that has now covered more than 470,000 miles. It’s owned by an auto worker named Erick Belmer, who chose it as the cheapest car in which he could travel 6,500 miles a month between his home and job.

Remarkably, Belmer has seen no degradation in the car’s electric range even after its battery propelled it for 165,500 of those miles. This speaks to the conservative approach taken by GM battery engineers, who provided liquid cooling and heating not only for the motor that powered the car, but for the battery itself. Stories of Volt battery degradation outside of the odd manufacturing flaw are essentially nonexistent.

Nissan took a more cost-effective approach with its Leaf battery, which is passively conditioned, meaning it simply sheds heat into the air. In the hottest climates, or under repeated extreme use, Leaf batteries notably lose capacity over time—far more capacity than do Volt batteries. It’s notable that Tesla, too, has always used liquid cooling for its batteries.

First 2011 Chevrolet Volt delivered to retail buyer Jeffrey Kaffee, in Denville, NJ, December 2010

First 2011 Chevrolet Volt delivered to retail buyer Jeffrey Kaffee, in Denville, NJ, December 2010

8. Chevy got new customers, who loved their Volts

Volt team leader Posawatz calls Volt buyers nothing short of “passionate.” It was the only GM vehicle ever to lead the industry in the Consumer Reports Customer Satisfaction survey (a slot now occupied by the Tesla Model S).

Surveys showed the Volt brought in many buyers who’d never owned a GM vehicle. This author recalled being asked by Silicon Valley venture capitalist in 2010 whether Chevy had any dealerships on the San Francisco Peninsula (there were five). He knew the locations of his Audi, BMW, Honda, Mercedes, and Toyota dealers, and of course Tesla, but had never registered Chevrolet—and never remotely conceived of owning one.

GM learned “how rabidly plug-in drivers will support companies building and promoting the cars they love,” Sexton notes. “There has never been any question that Volt drivers love their cars—likely more than most [other] non-Tesla EVs.”

But those owners were very, very different from traditional Chevrolet car buyers. (See “Brand Matters,” above.) And while some of them migrated to Bolt EVs, it remains unclear whether the brand kept many or any of them over the long term.

2012 Chevrolt Volt Gas Station Advert

2012 Chevrolt Volt Gas Station Advert

9. Explaining plug-in hybrids is really, really hard

We can do no better than to quote ourselves here, from an August 2016 article titled, “Plug-in hybrid problem: buyers don’t understand them at all.”

“Followers and advocates of green cars and advanced powertrain technologies understand the nuances [of why a plug-in hybrid makes sense]. The entire rest of the world doesn’t.”

Buyers “get” hybrids: they’re just like regular cars, but magic gerbils under the hood drink less.

They “get” electric cars: they’re cars with a battery that has to be plugged in at night, like your phone.

Combine the two and you wander off into explaining that it’s a hybrid, but it also has a plug, but it’s not only an electric car, and, yes, it has low range, but there are rational reasons for that, which are based on how you actually use cars … by this time, you’ve lost themand lost the sale.

In the end, the plug-in hybrid is an engineer’s solution to solving a specific problem: getting meaningful electric miles without paying the huge cost of a long-range battery pack. Reductions in battery cost far quicker than expected only a few years ago mean that tradeoff may no longer be necessary.

To be fair, GM almost surely lost money on every Volt it sold, so it had little interest in attracting limitless customers. Indeed, the Volt sales rate settled in at about 20,000 units a year. GM’s marketers acknowledged they promoted the car solely by reaching out to buyers who looked the same as those who’d already bought the car. That’s hardly a growth strategy.

It’s also fair to suggest that GM didn’t try very hard to explain the Volt to the world at large. How that contributed to ongoing confusion about plug-in hybrids, we’ll never know.

2007 Chevrolet Volt Concept

2007 Chevrolet Volt Concept

10. The Volt will have its place in history

It takes years for the impact of any innovation to be fully felt, appreciated, and assessed. But the Volt can be said to have had several lasting effects.

It went a long way to rehabilitate GM in the eyes of electric-car fans and advocates after the EV1 fiasco. “While many EV enthusiasts criticized GM for not going full electric [with the Volt],” Sexton concluded, “they were largely impressed by the initial dedication to the Volt as a ‘real program’ with reasonable volumes, nationwide deployment, and deep early engagement with advocates.”

Coming to market in the same month as the Nissan Leaf, it demonstrated that not just one but two global automakers were committed to vehicles that plugged in. Nine years later, it may be hard to remember how esoteric and futuristic EVs were then—but the Volt was one first step in normalizing them.

Finally, GM learned a lot from the Volt. The EV1 program had a user base numbered in the hundreds; the Volt gave it more than 100,000 vehicles on the road. With the owner’s permission, most Volts transmitted operating data to GM via their OnStar cellular links. That gave it detailed data on battery condition, charging behavior, and many more factors that help engineers understand how electrified vehicles behave under the actual real-world uses people put them to.

GM has said several times it used data from the Volt in designing the Bolt EV, its battery and electrical components, and the information it provides to drivers on the car’s operation. The Volt may be gone, but its lessons will live on.

 
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