You’re looking at one of the most important models in GM history. When the Volt concept debuted at the 2007 Detroit Auto Show, it was the first serious plug-in hybrid concept to ever come from a major manufacturer. It debuted (albeit with seriously toned down styling) in late 2010, and cased a sensation in the motor press. It was Green Car of the Year, North American Car of the Year, and World Car of the Year in 2011. After visiting the Hamtramck production in 2012, President Obama announced that he’d buy one once he leaves office. Well Mr. President, with your return to civilian life a few weeks away, here’s your next car, better than it’s ever been.
The first-generation Volt may have made a splash in the press and within the green car community, but with its Prius-like wedge shape and relatively high buy in (prices started at $34K before tax credits), Chevy has managed to sell just over 109,000 Volts to date, or about 65% of Toyota Prius sales in 2015 alone. Yes, it was a pioneering plug-in hybrid that delivered a comfortable ride, fantastic economy, and loads of dependable new tech (not bad for a company that “killed” the electric car), but in the end, the old Volt wasn’t enough to make enough people ditch full-on gasoline power — at least not yet.
But the Volt got a comprehensive redesign for 2016, and from here, it looks like it has everything it needs to break big. It’s lighter, handles better, is more comfortable, and looks great. But times are changing too; the Volt is a truly good looking car, but its impact has been blunted by the introduction of the similarly styled Cruze. Meanwhile the Prius has embraced its weirdness and went bold for 2016, and sales haven’t slowed much, despite gas prices remaining low. And finally, with the impending arrival of the Bolt — GM’s first-ever pure EV — there’s a worry that the Volt could get lost in the shuffle.
We hope that’s not the case, because whether you’re in the market for a plug-in hybrid, or at least open to looking into one while searching for your next new car, the Volt is still vital to GM’s future, and it deserves your attention.
One of the disappointments of the first-generation Volt was how many styling compromises were made between concept and production. Not only does the current car not have a concept to be compared to, it can now stand on its own merit. And luckily, it just looks good. There’s some stylistic carryover between the production Volts — the sloping hatchback profile, piano black accents, and polished metal front accents come to mind — but this car looks stylish, mature, and fully-realized. You get the feeling that there weren’t as many constraints this time around, and that’s done wonders.
While the previous car relied a little too heavily on trim to camouflage its slab sides and belt line, the new Volt is graceful and sporty looking from almost any angle. It’s no accident that there’s a little Camaro styling in the front end, and while there’s still thick black trim out back, it integrates with the top of the deck lid to form a sporty rear lip, while the nicely sculpted taillights stretch into the rear quarters, a graceful reminder of its predecessor.
Exterior pros and cons
+ No qualifier here, the new Volt just plain looks good.
+ Once cumbersome, the textured aluminum accents and piano black trim are used to great effect here.
+ Doesn’t scream “I’m a hybrid!” Hopefully, its low-key look will help to win over some converts.
– It doesn’t look like the Cruze; the Cruze looks like it. Still, it makes the groundbreaking (and pricier) Volt seem a little less special.
Since its introduction, the Volt has had one of the best powertrains of any green car on the road, and that’s no exception on the new model. Motivation comes from the Voltec 1.5 liter Atkinson cycle inline four mated to a pair of electric motors. All told, the system is good for 149 horses and 294 pound-feet of torque. Power is routed to the front wheels via an unobtrusive CVT.
With the batteries charged, the Volt goes an impressive 53 miles on all-electric power before the engine kicks in, and when it does, the transition of power is incredibly smooth. Charging with a 120 volt outlet takes a 13 hours; with a 240 volt station it takes a not insignificant 4.5 hours. Shifting into “L” causes the car to aggressively recharge the batteries through regenerative braking, and a button on the steering wheel turns the “Regen on Demand” function on when you hold it down. If you charge the car regularly and use the regen functions, Chevy expects customers to go over 1,000 miles between fill-ups. If you ever needed a reason to think about PHEVs, there it is.
Powertrain pros and cons
+ 1.5 liter, 2 AC motors, and CVT play together nicely.
+ Chevy is building a car that can realistically go 1,000 miles between fill ups. Let that sink in for a second.
+ Zero to 60 comes in 7.2 seconds. Hybrid or not, that’s a respectable time for an economy-minded hatch.
– We loved the regen functions — until we forgot to engage them. A less obtrusive full-time regen system would be incredibly helpful, and would mitigate the long recharge times.
– The best-case 4.5 hour recharge time is a long time to wait, especially when you’re using public chargers.
The last Volt was chock full of shiny plastic accents. Those are gone now (though curiously, they ended up in the new Prius), and the cabin is much more low-key this time around. Like the exterior, you’d be forgiven for seeing an unmistakable similarity between the Volt and the Cruze here, but there’s very little one-to-one crossover between the two.
Fit-and-finish is very good inside, and the tasteful amount of brightwork, blue contrast stitching, and blue shift knob help to break up all that black plastic and leather. The front seats are comfortable and supportive, though the firm, flat rear bench leaves something to be desired, especially if you’re trying to fit three back there. Headroom is limited and the center passenger ends up straddling the T-shaped battery pack.
Interior pros and cons
+ Like the exterior, interior is much more subdued and stylish than the previous generation.
+ Rides, handles, and feels like a regular car inside, yet another good way to win over the skeptics.
+ Blue contrast stitching and shifter knob do a good job breaking up an otherwise dark interior. Luckily, lighter options are available.
– Speaking of the shifter: Mechanical linkage seems old-fashioned in such an advanced car, especially in a year when both Cadillac and Buick introduced a much less obtrusive electronic shifter. Could we see a version arrive in the Volt for 2018? It would do wonders for opening up the center console for added storage.
– Yes, it’s technically a five-seater, but we wouldn’t want to subject most people we know to the center rear seat. Headroom is limited back there too.
Tech and safety
Like most hybrids, the bulk of tech and safety features ensure that the engine, electric motors, regenerative brakes, CVT, and battery pack are all working in harmony — and we wouldn’t have it any other way. In terms of safety, the ’17 Volt was named a Top Safety Pick+ by the IIHS, thanks to its high-strength steel-reinforced architecture (which also contributed to a several hundred pound weight loss), 10 standard airbags, and a host of available safety features.
Our car, the top-spec Premier model (base price $37,570, as tested $40,325), came standard with both available Driver Confidence packages, which come equipped with blind zone and rear cross traffic alerts, lane keep assist, forward automatic braking, and forward collision alert. At $495 each, they aren’t cheap, but they are worth it. Partnered with the standard backup camera, 8-inch touchscreen and Chevy MyLink infotainment system, and even heated seats, you aren’t left wanting for much.
Tech and safety pros and cons
+ As always, Chevy MyLink is fast, simple, and easy to use.
+ Outstanding safety record makes the Volt a great family car.
– Driver Confidence packages make the safe car even safer, but at $495 a pop, they aren’t cheap.
When you get in the Volt, it makes an electronic wooshing noise that sounds like a sound effect from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Then you start it, and it makes another one. When you turn it off, you get another. This wears thin pretty quickly, but hey, at least it doesn’t beep the whole time it’s in reverse like the Prius. Other than this little foible (which, at least, is kind of adorable), the Volt doesn’t hit you over the head with any other reminders that it’s different from anything else on the road. It just does what it does, and does it well.
The Volt starts silently as soon as it’s finished with its Shuttlecraft cosplay, and whisks you away silently with some of that 294 pound-feet of torque pushing you back into your seat so you can feel what electric power can do. Yes, you can get 1,000 miles per tank if you charge it more than we did in our week with it, but by the time those 53 all-electric miles are up (we got a little more thanks to using the regen systems in city driving), the 1.5 liter four takes over so smoothly that you may not even notice.
But outside of its brilliantly engineered powertrain, the Volt feels like a modern Chevy, and that’s a good thing. The brakes are good, the steering is nicely weighted, the interior is nice, and it handles just fine for a five-door hatch — a five-door hatch that, again, can go up to 1,000 miles on a tank of gas.
Wrap up and review
We recently spent a week with a non-plug-in Prius, and loved it for its all-out weirdness. We were similarly impressed with the Volt, but for almost the complete opposite reasons. The Volt is one of the best hybrids on the market, but unlike the Prius, it doesn’t try to stand out on merit alone. It’s good-looking, comfortable inside, and thoroughly contemporary, but it’s brilliant at normalizing cutting-edge green car tech. Chevy is done building a PHEV that screams “Look at me, I’m a hybrid!” (something the competition still seems hung up on) and has replaced it with a car that’s even better than the one that the automotive community fell for over five years ago.
If you’re looking for a green car that telegraphs to the world that you’re driving a hybrid, then look elsewhere. The Volt is better than ever, and the proof comes once you plug it in every night and realize after a little while that you’ve cut way back on trips to the gas station. Then you can revel in how smart you are for buying a Volt. Just don’t be surprised if your neighbors have to ask what kind of car it is.
The best disruptive technology is the kind that makes you change your habits without calling attention to them. If you’re looking for a car that can do that, look no further than Chevy’s plug-in hybrid. If the Bolt EV can be half as competent and discreet as the Volt, then the Bowtie brand may find itself at the center of the green car market very, very soon.
Via James Derek Sapienza, CheatSheet