Chevy Volt preview: escape from DC in today's car of tomorrow

Chevy Volt: Escape from DC in today's car of tomorrow

Okay, we're no Snake Plissken, but let's just say that DC has become something of an interesting town lately, with mock-left and faux-right wing pundits holding giant rallies, political candidates being accused of witchcraft, and various other signs of the apocalypse happening every day. We were glad to make it out with both eyes and we were glad to be doing so in the car of the future that's finally a part of the present: Chevrolet's $41,000 Volt. It's actually (honestly) in proper production now, being delivered to select dealers soon, one of those production models given to us to drive from our great nation's capital to the cultural capital of the world: New York City. We easily managed it on a single tank of gas, but what kind of mileage did we get? You'll just have to read on to find out.


From the outside, the four Volts lined up sitting silently in the pissing down rain don't look much different than the car we spent a little bit of time with this spring. If you haven't seen a Volt yet, well, you should know it isn't a car that will turn heads, but neither is it a one that will sneer lips. It looks like a Chevy compact, from a distance easily mistaken for the company's other new little cruiser the Cruze. In terms of profile nothing stands out -- exactly the point on such an efficiency-minded auto: anything sticking out drags in the wind and drag is a cardinal sin of those who chant at the church of aerodynamics.

So it's a boring shape, highlighted only by a very sharp cut-off on the rear that almost gives it the posterior profile of a Nissan GTR -- minus the iconic round lights. Ultimately the Volt is a better looking car going than coming, but get a little closer and the details start to come out. The mirrors are nicely sculpted and profiled, perched atop a subtle metal Volt badge. Headlights are taut and shapely, dissolving into the profile of the bumper without getting lost. The big chrome grille, though, is really the only thing that catches your eye from the front, and not necessarily in a good way.

Getting comfortable

The interior is, as they say, another story entirely. American car interiors have typically been considered the worst in the industry and over the years General Motors has had no small part in shaping that impression. Curious, then, that the Volt has a distinctive and dashing cabin that, despite the garish white center stack, is borderline classy -- if you don't get the one with neon green highlights on the door panels.

The prototype model we drove in the spring had an interior clearly cobbled together with wood, sticks, and bubblegum that looked nice and advanced and cool so long as you didn't have your index finger a half-inch too far to the left when shifting into P. Do so and you'd be quickly shifting back to D again and driving to ER where some kind doctor would hopefully sew that finger back on again. The new shifter is now smaller and unlikely to sever digits against the console when it tucks into park.

Dominating the dash is a mass of cool and creamy white plastic in the center console, peppered by capacitive buttons. These don't move when you touch them and are nigh-impossible to find by feel. Yes, they do work through gloves, at least the thin ones we tried, but to manage this feat their sensitivity has been boosted through the roof. Wafting a finger anywhere near one is enough to trigger it, which caused multiple accidental adjustments to the HVAC system while reaching for the 7-inch multi-function display perched atop.

On there you can get a real-time view of the flowing of energy from batteries or internal combustion engine to electric motor. It's way fancier than that found in the Prius (think PS3 splash screen to PS1 boot-up) but ultimately shows the same information. You can also get readouts on your personal driving efficiency, see how far you've made it on batteries alone, and interact with the navigation system.

For a factory nav unit the one in the Volt is quite good -- not flashy by any means, the interface is a bit clumsy, and the lady voice is bossy and weird as usual, but she's full of info. Lane closure up ahead? She'll let you know with plenty of time to get out of the way and then tell you just how much stop-and-go traffic you'll sit through thanks to all the schmucks who tried to merge a little later.

A second 7-inch display sits behind the steering wheel, presenting necessary information like speed and fuel tank capacity while also spitting out remaining range, battery charge, and of course telling you that you've left the blinker on -- easy to do here as its chime is awfully quiet. We have some concerns about using a panel like this to display vital car information, as when the temperature drops way south of zero your average LCD turns into a Technicolor dream show, but we're told it'll work just fine even in Fargo.

The top of the dash, where you might expect an expanse of cheap black plastic, is actually tastefully sculpted with grooves flowing outward into the door sills and back from there, a nice aesthetic touch that shows someone actually tried to do something interesting in here, and succeeded.

Front seats are leather-clad, heated, and comfortable, though they show their domestic heritage by being rather flat. They're also unfortunately fully manual and yes, we're sure that power ones would put a tiny hurting on the Volt's efficiency, but this is a $41k car we're talking about here. Throw us some electric controls. Rear seats, meanwhile, are nearly as good as the fronts, with plenty of legroom and plenty of comfort.

Other details include USB and 3.5mm inputs tucked away in the glove box as well as a 40GB entertainment system onto which you can copy tunes or directly from the FM... you know, so you can record that new song by that one girl you heard during the sad retrospective that rolled before the credits of that show you kind of like.

The sound system? Quite good. It's a Bose unit, and we'll let you have fun expressing your love/hate for the brand in comments, but here it delivers well-balanced sound that does a more than adequate job of filling the reasonably quiet cabin. In fact you can rarely hear the internal combustion engine at all when on the highway. It's only when you're sitting in traffic that you really notice its presence, droning and complaining occasionally as you wait for a light.

However, this does nothing to help pedestrians hear you coming, and instead of a constant murmuring noise like found on the Leaf GM engineers basically put a second horn mode on the Volt. Pull on the light stalk and the car lets out a string of unobtrusive chirps, useful when slaloming through a couple of texting jaywalkers but not contributing noise pollution the rest of the time.

The drive

If you wanted to obliterate any lingering fears about getting electrocuted while driving an electric car you'd choose a day like we had. It never got torrential, though, ranging from a drizzle to a sprinkle all day. The Volt's wipers and lights, we're happy to report, worked quite well. They were on for the entire 240 miles, which is perhaps why we only managed 27 miles on batteries before switching over to gas.

It's possible that's because we also made liberal use of the bum-sweatening seat warmers, or maybe it's because we weren't using Low gear enough on our trip out of DC. In your average slushbox shifting it into L just keeps the transmission from selecting high gear. Here it hugely boosts the regenerative braking effect so that as soon as you lift off the throttle the car quite rapidly turns inertia into tickle juice for the Li-Ion cells.

It's a little like driving a Formula One car with a high downforce package on, except not really the same at all, but it actually does result in boosted efficiency. With a little planning you can avoid using the mechanical brakes almost altogether.

Another new treat is Mountain mode, which we gluttonously sampled despite an unfortunate absence of steep inclines. Normally the internal combustion engine ticks over at around 1,500 or 2,000 RPM when charging the battery, running at maximum efficiency. In mountain mode it runs closer to 4,000 RPM, generating more power so that you can have the necessary juice to tackle any mountain (with a well-groomed access road) that dares cross your path. If you use Mountain mode while cruising the slab it'll just result in extra electricity going back into the pack, which isn't the end of the world.

And then there's Sport mode, which boosts the throttle response and turns the Volt into a respectably quick car. This naturally doesn't do your EV range any favors, but human commuters can't live on superior MPG figures alone. A little fun goes a long way. Similarly the car is quite handy on cloverleafs, with not exactly nimble but positive turn-in and handling that will have you grinning before the front tires start to push, even in the rain.

The Volt isn't a sports car by anyone's definition of the word but it's definitely more fun to drive than the Prius, and the brakes are generally better feeling as well. There's none of the mushiness in the Toyota, though it must be said the closer you get to the floor on the brake pedal the more vague the Volt's feedback becomes. Over bumps and seams between chunks of pavement the Volt is quiet and composed, no doubt relying on its considerable 3,800lb mass to help push those bumps back into place, but nevertheless not jarring your spine in the process.

That said, we certainly felt the Volt's final impact, the brutal one that broke its wheel just as we were entering the Lincoln Tunnel. A pothole swallowed the left-front and dinged the inner lip of the wheel just enough to set the integrated tire pressure monitors alight. Thankfully we made it through the tunnel, but had to break out the car's trunk-mounted inflation kit to limp the last mile to our downtown destination, milky white coagulant oozing onto the asphalt.


Okay, so here's the big of information you've been waiting for: on the 239.7 mile trip from Washington DC to New York City we burned 6.1 gallons of gas. That's 38.8 MPG, a figure that's pretty good for a gas-powered economy car but, for a $41,000 car that's supposed to make the world a better place for our children... well, it's a little unimpressive to say the least.

However, before you dismiss the thing altogether you must keep in mind that the trip we took was a worst-case scenario: a one-way trip that was well past the thing's initial EV range. If this is what your daily commute looks like this is certainly not the car for you. This kind of trip is basically an example of what the Volt can do, not what it should do. This is an EV you can fill up with gas, drive a couple-hours up to your in-laws on the weekend like a normal car, charge it up when you get home, and then go back to commuting gasoline free -- assuming that commute is a less than a 30 mile round trip.


If that sub-30 mile trip matches your driving pattern, and we're guessing it does for many of you, the Volt is an interesting proposition. It's comfortable to think that you could have a gasoline-free daily driver you can still load up and take into the country on the weekends.

But, clearly if you have a need to go farther than 30 miles between charges on a regular basis the Volt makes no sense. A standard economy car will save you tens of thousands of dollars up front and deliver better mileage in the long-run. Need something a bit more overtly environmentalist? Next year's plug-in Prius we just tested will surely be cheaper, does 15 miles on a charge, delivers 60ish MPG over the rest of your trip, and can still coddle your inner environmentalist.

Or, you could just buy a $16,000, 40mpg Ford Fiesta, put a plant on the dash, and donate the difference to charity.

Update: A lot of people are wondering in comments why this route was chosen when it clearly did not make best use of the Volt's Li-Ion assets, and the simple answer is that it wasn't our choice. We'd hoped to test a Volt over a couple of days of mixed driving conditions, but were told that wasn't possible, and this opportunity was given to us as an alternative.

[Thanks to GM's Larry Wilson for acting as an impromptu cameraman during the trip]