Chevrolet’s Volt is a significant car. When the first-generation Volt went on sale in 2010, it was the first plug-in series hybrid—previous hybrids like the Toyota Prius and Honda Insight used their electric motors to supplement the internal combustion engine, but the Volt was primarily an electric vehicle (EV) that used the onboard gasoline engine to charge its battery.
The Volt underwent a lengthy development process. We first saw it in the flesh in 2008 at a time when GM was heavily playing up the fact that the car was an EV, not a hybrid (in fact, there are some circumstances when the gasoline engine can send drive to the wheels). It would be another two years before the car went on sale and another year after that until Ars got some time behind the wheel .
If the first Volt was revolutionary, the second-generation car is a more evolutionary design. We got our first look at the car at this year’s New York auto show, where Automotive Editor Jonathan Gitlin came away impressed . The new car has a significantly increased range—over 400 miles (644km) compared to 300 (483km) on the older model—with up to 53 miles (86km) on battery power alone. The electric motor is 100lbs (45kg) lighter than before and 12 percent more efficient.
The battery has also been heavily reworked. It’s an 18.4kWh battery developed by Chevrolet and LG Chem and is 21lbs (10kg) lighter and has many fewer cells (192 vs. 288) than the old 16kWh battery. As before, the battery is designed to never drop below about 30 percent charge, which should give it a 10-year lifespan.
Things are also better inside the car, as it’s now a true five-seater. The Volt comes with GM’s new MyLink infotainment system, which you interact with via an 8-inch touchscreen. Apple’s CarPlay is present and functional, and Android Auto is not far behind (it’s still undergoing testing and certification at GM). But enough tech specs—what’s the car like to drive?
All the screens you'll look at
A full review of the Volt will have to wait until the cars arrive in GM’s press fleet; what follows is just our first hands-on impressions. The first drive event took place in the Bay Area, so the task fell to me rather than resident car nerd Gitlin ( who only seems to drive supercars now for some reason). As the owner of a hybrid—in this case a 2006 Honda Civic Hybrid—I should be well-equipped to judge the new car. And I was happy to trade up, if only temporarily.
The planned route passed the Golden Gate bridge and carried on down Highway 1 with sweeping views of the Pacific coastline; it may as well have been the setting for a car commercial. Certainly a pretty nice way to test out the car’s improved efficiency and new high-tech features.
Upon arrival in Sausalito, Chevy representatives had me pick a car, and I opted for an all-black model with leather seats. I was paired with a Chevy engineer, who took the passenger seat and acted as navigator. Winding roads, here we come!
Almost immediately I was forced to put one key feature to the test: the brakes. A couple of deer crossed my path only a few minutes into the journey. I can report that the brakes are both very responsive and smooth.
I discovered another feature that I really liked: the paddle on the back of the steering wheel. The feature, called "Regen On Demand," is designed to regenerate energy during times when you may be using the brake a lot, such as when you're stuck in traffic on a highway. When I'm driving, my reflexes are quicker in my hands than my feet, so I felt like I was able to slow more quickly with the paddle than with the foot brake.
The dashboard on the new Volt is well-lit and easy to read. It provides feedback to help you drive with maximum efficiency—there's a leaf that floats up and down as you accelerate and brake. As with most hybrid and electric vehicles, the middle range is where you want to be, and the leaf glows green when you’re in that range. This wasn't very different from my own hybrid vehicle, so I didn't have to adjust to a different way of driving for the Volt.
The battery and fuel levels form a big circle in the middle of the dashboard, with the speed in the middle. There is also some other handy information that you can display on the dashboard under the speed, such as the follow distance, which tracks how many seconds you're driving behind another vehicle. Overall, the dashboard design is simple, and it’s very easy to find all the essential information with a quick glance.
On the screen in the center stack there's a little more going on. Here is where you can find out how much energy you've used since the vehicle was last charged, MPGe ranges, and kWh used. CarPlay also lives here, as will Android Auto next year. One caveat: Apple CarPlay currently only works with an iPhone plugged in. Hopefully, future iterations will allow you to connect to your phone wirelessly.
Unfortunately, the route that I drove on had spotty cell service. I wasn’t able to interact with Siri, nor was I able to load a podcast. However, after my first lengthy interaction with CarPlay, I can see the appeal. Personally, I always try not to use my phone at all while driving (Hi, Dad!), but sometimes there's an urgent message I need to see or my destination has changed and I need to view new directions. For those times, I have to find a safe area to pull over to the side of the road and then rejoin traffic when I'm done. It's kind of a hassle, and I'm glad that cars are now installing this smartphone projection technology. Yes, it's still technically a distraction to look over at a screen to the right of the steering wheel when driving, but it's safer than looking at a tiny screen on your lap or in your hand.
During the drive, I also tried out a few other features, such as the steering-wheel warmer. It's a feature that's probably more useful for places that have actual seasons, but I would still use it on brisk mornings in California. The car is also equipped with front- and rear-seat warmers, although using them would probably impact the car’s overall range somewhat (although probably less severely than a pure EV).
|Specs at a glance: 2016 Chevy Volt|
|Body Type||4-door compact|
|Powerplant||Second-generation Voltec electric drive system, 18.4-kWh lithium-ion battery pack, and Ecotec 1.5L gas-powered range extender|
|Layout||Electric, front-wheel drive|
|Steering||Rack-mounted electric power steering with ZF steering gear|
|Charge time||4.5 hours (240V), 13 hours (120V)|
|Electric drive power||149hp/111kW|
|Fuel Economy||106 MPGe (electric), 42 MPG (gas)|
|EV range||53mi / 85km (city), 420mi / 675km (extended range)|
|Dimensions||180.4in (4,582mm) x 71.2 in (1,808mm) x 56.4in (1,433mm) (LWH)|
|Price as tested||$39,335|
|Options added||Following distance sensor indicator, Rear Cross-Traffic Alert, Forward Collision Alert, Lane Keep Assist, IntelliBeam® headlamps with automatic high-beam, Side Blind Zone Alert with Lane Change Alert, Low-speed Front Automatic Braking, Leather seats.|
My car is parking itself!
The 2016 Volt includes several automatic features that put it in that middle ground between regular car and self-driving car—it falls under level two of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s four levels of autonomous driving . There’s Lane Keep Assist, which can nudge your steering wheel back if you’re about to unsafely merge into a different lane, automatic braking if it appears you’re about to hit the car in front of you, and semi-automatic parallel parking. Luckily, I didn’t have to try out those first two features, but I did want to see what it was like to have a car parallel park for me.
I learned to drive in Los Angeles, where practically everyone has a car, but I still struggle with parallel parking from time to time; I've actually passed spots where I knew I'd have to back in and pull forward several times. Now technology is replacing the need to learn how to parallel park. Well, almost. The car does only does half of the work, but it does remove the most stressful elements of parallel parking.
As you drive slowly down a street, the car uses sensors to measure the spaces between parked vehicles to find an open spot and tells you when to stop once it finds one. The driver is in control of the brake and gears, and the car takes care of everything else. And it's a little creepy. Once you put the car in reverse, the steering wheel starts moving by itself to back into the spot.
My first reaction was to take control of the steering wheel, which is probably normal. The dashboard tells the driver when to stop the car and put the car in drive. Then the car will move up until it reaches the appropriate distance to the car in front of you. If you're trying to park in a tight spot, the car might ask you to repeat these steps of shifting the car from reverse to drive. But that's it. You control the brake and shifters when you're told to, and the car will tell you when the parking job is complete.
During the test of the park assist feature, the car was moving slowly down a quiet street, with a lot of time to assess parking options. But if you're the type of person who needs to park in a busy city environment, you've probably already mastered parallel parking anyway.
Overall, the Volt was easy to drive. It handled curves and bumps in the road well, the brakes were super smooth—not always the easiest thing to accomplish with a hybrid that has to juggle regenerative braking and traditional brake disks—and the high-tech safety features were a nice bonus. We’re now big fans of Apple CarPlay when it works. The Volt is an efficient car, too—with help from the tracker on the dashboard I even beat Chevy's promise of 53 electric-only miles by a mile [This is why we sent you instead of me and my heavy right foot – Ed.]
Once I was past the electric range of the car, the Volt was still smooth and handled extremely well. When I got back into my old Civic Hybrid at the end of the day, which is slow to accelerate and doesn't absorb potholes and bumps in the road well, it was a noticeable difference. Yes, my own car is older, but the Volt didn’t feel like an energy-efficient car. And that’s a good thing. Stay tuned for a full review of the Volt in the coming months.
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