The 2011 Chevrolet Volt is Chevy's much-anticipated new plug-in battery/gasoline hybrid, featuring an electric-only mode with a range of up to 40 miles.
So what exactly is the 2011 Chevrolet Volt? It's a question we get all the time. A confusing array of claims and rumors have been swirling around this car since it debuted as a concept a few years back, so we're not surprised that people aren't clear on what the Volt is all about.
Here's the long and short of it: The Volt is a four-seat, four-door "series-parallel plug-in hybrid" hatchback with a lithium-ion battery pack that can power the car's 149-horsepower (111-kilowatt) electric motor by itself for an estimated 40 miles in the city. After that, the gasoline-powered inline-4 engine primarily supplies electricity to the motor for as many as 300 additional miles. All told, the Volt is the most advanced hybrid to date and quite possibly the most fuel-efficient car you will be able to buy.
We say "quite possibly" because you can't measure the Volt's fuel economy in any standard fashion. It all depends on how you drive. Suppose you have a 20-mile round-trip commute, and you plug in your Volt every night when you get home (a full charge requires as few as 3 hours). Congratulations! Your fuel economy is infinity, because you'll never run the battery pack down all the way. But if you have a 100-mile commute, you'll be driving at least 60 miles a day under gasoline power, so you'll have to refuel on a regular basis. And in an Edmunds fuel economy test of a Volt with its battery depleted, the car returned only 31.4 mpg in mixed driving. That's far below the typical fuel economy provided by regular hybrid vehicles.
Obviously, how far you routinely drive will play a key role in how thrifty the Volt will be. We think most potential owners will be able to take advantage of its electric range. And electricity costs for recharging are but a fraction for the equivalent amount of gasoline. What's not clear is whether those savings are worth what you'll have to pay at the dealership. Even with a $7,500 federal tax credit, a base Volt will still cost $33,500 -- and that's without the home charging station that's essentially mandatory for a plug-in hybrid like the Volt. There's also a strong likelihood that dealers will try to gouge early customers with sky-high markups.
Still, there is no denying the Volt's technological promise. Most importantly, it has the ability to keep on going when its battery runs down (say, on a road trip), whereas an all-electric vehicle like Nissan's Leaf does not. If you want an intriguing yet practical taste of a greener automotive future, the 2011 Chevy Volt might be just what the General ordered.
Body Styles, Trim Levels, and Options
The 2011 Chevrolet Volt is a midsize five-door hatchback sedan with seating for four.
Standard features include 17-inch alloy wheels, automatic headlights, heated mirrors, keyless ignition, remote ignition, automatic climate control, cruise control, auto-dimming rearview mirror, six-way manual front seats, tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, cloth upholstery, Bluetooth, OnStar, a navigation system with touchscreen, voice controls and real-time traffic, and a six-speaker Bose stereo with CD/DVD player, auxiliary audio jack, iPod/USB interface and 30GB of digital music storage.
The Premium Trim package adds leather upholstery, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and heated front seats. The Rear Camera and Park Assist package adds a rearview camera and front and rear parking sensors.
Powertrains and Performance
The front-wheel-drive 2011 Volt is primarily powered by an electric motor rated at 149 hp (111 kilowatts) and 273 pound-feet of torque. This motor draws power from a lithium-ion battery pack until the battery charge is 70 percent depleted. At that point, the Volt's 1.4-liter four-cylinder internal combustion engine, which requires premium fuel, comes to life as a replacement power source for the electric motor. Under certain higher-speed conditions, the four-cylinder can also help power the wheels directly.
The battery can only be completely recharged through either a 120- or 240-volt outlet, but regenerative braking and the engine generator can replenish it slightly. In Edmunds range and fuel economy testing, we found the Volt had an electricity range of between 30 and 39 miles in mixed driving. When the battery is depleted, it returned 31.4 mpg. However, the term "your mileage may vary" has never been so true.
In Edmunds performance testing, the Volt went from zero to 60 mph in 9.2 seconds in electric mode and 9 seconds flat with the engine generator. Both are fairly quick times for the traditional hybrid segment.
Safety features on the 2011 Chevy Volt include antilock brakes, stability control, front side airbags, front knee airbags and full-length side curtain airbags. In Edmunds brake testing, the Volt came to a stop in a respectable 124 feet.
Interior Design and Special Features
The 2011 Chevrolet Volt's distinctive center stack appears to have been modeled after various personal electronic devices with touch-sensitive buttons. It looks less like an automotive control panel than an oversized iPod, which we applaud; after all, if you're spending this much money on a vehicle, you'll likely expect a little something special inside. Overall interior quality is also high, with materials that seem to be the best yet from recently improved Chevrolet.
There's plenty of technology involved, too, including a standard color display with a built-in hard drive. In terms of functionality, the Volt's main controls are fairly intuitive, and the futuristic gauge readout is easy enough to read at a glance (though it washes out in sunlight). There's also a nice little ball -- sort of like the bubble in a water level -- that helps you stay in the most energy-efficient driving range. It's big and green when you are conserving fuel or battery energy and smaller and angry orange-yellow when you're not.
Space and comfort is a little disappointing. There is no power driver seat option, which limits adjustability and seems like an oversight in a car that costs $41,000. In back, there are just two seats, and they lack both headroom and legroom; adults will likely feel cramped.
The Volt's hatchback design is convenient for loading cargo, but the swooping rear roof line and battery pack location limit maximum luggage capacity to just 10.6 cubic feet with the back seats up. The rear seats fold down to expand cargo capacity, but overall practicality is below that of a Prius.
The 2011 Chevrolet Volt accelerates quickly from a standstill and is very responsive at moderate speeds as well; it's the kind of performance that's typical of electric vehicles.
In all-electric mode, the Volt is as quiet and smooth as any EV we've driven -- and it's still a competent vehicle when the engine-generator kicks in. The change-over from battery charge to generator power can be difficult to notice, though once you inevitably do, it may take a while to get used to the engine revving regardless of engine speed.
The Chevy Volt feels slightly nose-heavy when you bend it around a corner, but it makes its moves with little body roll. Indeed, from the compliance of its ride quality to the weight and response of the steering, this Chevy Volt drives more naturally and feels more substantial than hybrids like the Honda Insight and Toyota Prius. One problem area is the brake pedal. It is quite touchy and can be difficult to modulate, though stopping distances are good.