Driven: 2011 Chevrolet Volt

By Brandon Turkus

May 05, 2011

—Rochester Hills, Michigan
As the green auto segment has exploded over the past several years, there has been one car that has been its undisputed face. Of course we are talking about the Toyota Prius, the must-have car of treehuggers, movie stars, and reality TV wives everywhere.
And there is a good reason for the Prius’ dominance, because for all the cracks that may be made about its super-low levels of driver involvement (61 according to our scale) and general public perception, it excels at its intended purpose of squeezing as many miles from a gallon of gasoline as possible.
There have been several cars that have attempted to beat the Prius at its own game over the past few years, all with varying levels of success. After a week with Chevrolet’s long-in-waiting Volt though, we think we’ve found a car that not just beats the Prius at its own game, but completely revolutionizes the way said game is played.
Of course, the Volt has had every perceivable reward bestowed upon it over the past year, including Motor Trend's coveted Car Of The Year, as well as North American Car Of The Year and Green Car Of The Year awards. But what is it about Chevy’s eco car that makes it so different, and therefore, special, compared to the Prius and its host of competitors?
The Volt is, first and foremost, a properly enjoyable car to drive. Ignore the on-board readouts and your fuel economy, and the Volt will happily dust other cars away from the lights, thanks to the 273 pound-feet of torque generated by its electric motor. This instant-on torque gives the Volt a feeling of immediacy that might be unfamiliar to the owner of a conventional car.
If you want to drive with an eye towards economy though, the Volt is happy to coach you along. The inclusion of a list of “Efficiency Tips” should give rookie hypermilers a good idea of how to get the best mileage, whether electric or gas. As for the act of driving efficiently, the same thing that makes the Volt a blast at a stoplight makes economy driving easy. That ready-set-go torque allows the driver to make small (and therefore economical) throttle inputs that get the Volt up to speed at a pace that won’t have other motorists honking at you.
The Volt also trumps its green competition in the steering and handling department. Although the Chevy is quite heavy (3781 pounds), it doesn’t feel that weighty when being flung about. The Volt isn’t agile by any stretch, but it has a solidity when being driven hard that we really appreciated.
The same goes for the steering, which feels nicely dialed in to the front wheels. We aren’t talking Porsche Boxster levels of steering feel here, but it is considerably better than what’s found in the Prius. We wouldn’t have minded a bit more heft from the tiller though, especially considering the mass being hauled about.
If we experienced one big problem with the Volt, it was juicing up its lithium-ion battery. The process of charging the Volt is a fairly straightforward affair: plug the charge pack in to your nearest outlet, open the charge door on the Chevy’s driverside front fender, insert the charge cable into the car, and wait. And wait. General Motors claims the Volt should take 10 hours to charge on your typical 120-volt wall outlet. Unfortunately for us, 10-hour charges only netted about a 75-percent charge and a 25-mile range, while full charges would take anywhere from 13 to 16 hours. This charge time was a repeated issue, as we simply didn’t have 13 to 16 hours to spare between going to bed, and waking up for the next day’s driving.
There is a charge pack that can be purchased, resulting in a 220V charge, that should zap life back into the battery in 4 to 6 hours, but the pack itself costs $490, while the average installation can range from $900 to $1500 depending on the condition and setup of your garage wiring. Based on our experience with the standard charger, we’d happily drop the $2000 for a car that we know will be charged when we are ready to go.
While we say we wouldn’t mind making that $2000 investment, there is an elephant in the room. We’d be spending that $2K on top of the $43,390 asking price of our Volt. Even with the current $7500 tax incentive, that works out to spending almost $38,000 on a vehicle, which no matter how you slice it, is quite a bit of coin for a four-seater that isn’t much larger than a Chevy Cruze.
The Volt did us well during our time with it, including a long weekend of testing that netted 327 miles and an average of 62.3 miles per gallon. That’s a figure that instantly vaults the Volt to the top of the heap in terms of all of the high-mpg cars we’ve ever tested. Had we consistently had a fully charged battery, we’d expect this figure to climb considerably.
VS: Toyota Prius
If there is one car that is really making the Prius show its age, it’s the Volt. The Chevy’s suite of information and economy displays simply spanks Toyota’s wonder hatch, giving drivers a considerably better idea of what’s going on between their fuel level, charge level, and battery.
To make things more embarrassing for the Prius, the Volt is a better car to pilot on a day-to-day basis. It’s more comfortable, and while still somewhat boring, it’s more involving than the Toyota. The steering actually feels connected to the front wheels, and despite the Volt’s heft, it feels more agile. Toyota, the gauntlet has been thrown. Time to answer.
VS: Volkswagen Jetta TDI
If comparing the Volt and the Prius was apples and oranges, comparing it with the Jetta TDI is essentially comparing apples and wasabi. There are valid arguments to be made over the Jetta’s more conventional interior, but the big focus needs to be placed on economy and involvement. Simply put, the Jetta is easier to drive efficiently than the Volt. It still burns fuel, but it can be driven just like any other car, without the eye towards economy that nets the best mileage in the Volt. Oh yeah, it can also be had with a six-speed manual!
The Jetta does have its disadvantages though. If your daily commute only happens to be 10 to 20 miles, then the Volt makes a good deal more sense, as it would allow you to commute free of emissions and fuel. There is also the absurd price of a gallon of diesel, and the lack of a clean and quiet EV mode, that makes the TDI less appealing.
VS: Nissan Leaf
Comparing the Volt to the Leaf is difficult, simply because the two cars are designed for different purposes. The Leaf is the perfect runabout. It’s a true electric vehicle, getting all of its “fuel” from a plug. This allows its owner to completely forgo gasoline, but at the expense of a very short, 90-mile range.
The Volt on the other hand, is able to travel as far as your wallet can take it. It is an electric vehicle (albeit a range-extended electric vehicle), but its on-board gas engine allows a great deal more versatility than the Leaf. And while the Leaf is considerably cheaper (starting price of $32,780, or $25,280 after the same $7500 tax incentive), it doesn’t feature the same level of luxury found in the Volt. The Chevy boasts remote start, heated leather seats, and a host of telematics systems, while the Leaf feels more like an economy car.
2011 Chevrolet Volt
Engine: Lithium-ion battery, electric motor, 1.4-liter inline-4 electric generator
Output: 150 hp/273 lb-ft
Top Speed: 100 mph
Cargo Volume: 10.6 cu ft
Weight: 3781 lb
Base Price: $40,280
As Tested: $43,390
On Sale: Now