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First drive: 2016 Chevrolet Volt

Chevy's Volt just molted from a gimmicky wannabe EV to a mature plug-in hybrid

The new Volt’s extended range, sportier handling, and contemporary looks offer a compelling alternative to the garden-variety hybrid options on the market. 

In the immediate fallout of the currently developing diesel scandal, it’s safe to assume that there are legions of eco-conscious buyers out there looking for an alternative to their current vehicle. Given Volkswagen’s proposition of a more dynamic driving experience provided by its TDI offerings than that of hybrid models like the Toyota Prius, there’s a significant void in the market that’s been left in the wake of the debacle.

The Volt feels surprisingly spritely for a plug-in vehicle.

Considering the circumstances, Chevrolet’s timing with the launch of its all-new second generation Volt is fairly ideal, as the 2016 model sheds weight, adds range, and gets bolstered performance to match its edgier looks. GM touts the new Volt as “better in every way”, and while that’s certainly a bold claim, after driving in and around Sausalito, California for a day, I wasn’t left with much reason to disagree.

A Comprehensive Rethink

To date, Chevrolet has moved over 82,000 examples of the first generation Volt. While that’s no small number considering the Volt’s relatively niche audience, it does fall short of GM’s initial expectations for the car by a substantial margin. But with the ambitious scope of the Volt’s design, it’s no surprise that the first car – as impressive as it is from engineering standpoint – stood to benefit from the wealth of feedback available from GM’s customers.

Over the past several years, they’ve taken that data and applied it to their strategy for this new model, which sees substantial revision in nearly every major aspect of its design, aimed at addressing the core concerns that first generation Volt owners expressed.

Perhaps the biggest news in that regard is the Volt’s all new powertrain, which sees a substantial jump in range while simultaneously delivering improved performance. All-electric range is up nearly 40 percent and is now pegged at 53 miles, while total range jumps to 420 miles, up from 380 in the previous model. On the performance side, the Volt now gets from 0-30 in 2.6 seconds and from 0-60 in 8.4; improvements of 19 percent and 7 percent, respectively.

That feat is accomplished by an all-new powertrain design, one which utilizes a slightly bigger 18.4 kW battery with a simplified cell architecture versus the outgoing unit, and a new 1.5-liter range-extending gasoline motor. GM explains that this new gasoline counterpart is larger than the unit used in the outgoing model in order to reduce noise and smooth out the transitions between all-electric and electric + gasoline operation. To put it another way: it requires less effort from this bigger motor to accomplish the same task.

The new Volt is a perfect example of a model that benefits from its newfound maturity.

Despite the increased size, the new Volt actually sheds more than 200 pounds versus the outgoing model, due largely to the revisions in the powertrain and battery design. That’s no small feat, and it allowed engineers to tweak the suspension tuning of the new Volt for more dynamic handling without introducing harshness into the ride quality. Along with 294 pound-feet of torque to complement its 149 horsepower, the new Volt feels surprisingly spritely for a plug-in vehicle, and its 0-30 mph improvements, in particular, gives the car a more authoritative feel both off the line and when carving through urban traffic. It also does so using regular gas rather than the premium grade that the outgoing model required.

More “daily fare” and less “World’s Fair”

The Volt’s visual aesthetic sees considerable revision as well. While the first generation car sought to entice customers with a “The Future Is Now!” approach to its design, the new car falls closer in line contemporary sport sedan design. Externally, there’s still a few flourishes that help the new model stand out in a crowd, but on the whole, the Volt’s revised sheet metal seems to come from a rationale that these types of cars no longer need to shout their intentions to the world.

But there’s function in play here as well – GM says the new Volt’s design is as much about aerodynamic efficiency as it is about aligning the plug-in with Chevrolet’s performance DNA. To that end, a new shutter system behind the grill helps manage airflow into the engine compartment, which in turn allowed designers to give the new Volt a shorter front overhang and a wider grille opening, while components like the tail lamps were designed in a wind tunnel to help reduce the car’s drag coefficient.

The approach of bringing the Volt into the mainstream continues into the interior, where designers have ditched the eye-catching but busy center stack of the outgoing car in favor of a more traditional touch screen interface with a set of physical buttons below for HVAC controls, based on customer feedback.

It’s more intuitive to use and flat-out functions better, but don’t be fooled into thinking that Chevrolet had to sacrifice functionality to get there – all of the customizability of the first generation car remains intact, such as the ability to set the car to charge during off-peak hours and keep track of how efficiently you’re driving the car. Additionally, the system now touts some of the latest connected features as well, with Apple CarPlay available at launch and Android Auto functionality due to be added to the system early next year via a firmware update.

Making Good On The Promise

The driving route I took extended over 100 miles throughout our session in the car, giving me a chance to experience the Volt in both all-EV and hybrid modes, and the drivetrain efforts appear to have paid off. Acceleration is brisk and the transition between all-electric and gas assist modes is almost imperceptible, from both a power delivery and auditory standpoint. It’s clear that the folks from Chevrolet have put some extensive engineering manpower into the new Volt in order to achieve the goals they set and benefits are obvious from behind the wheel.

In terms of real-life mileage, the Volt also yielded almost exactly the same amount of all-EV range advertised despite our “spirited” evaluation techniques. Once the gas range extender got involved fuel economy also hovered right around the 42 mpg that Chevrolet has purported of the new power plant, and I’d expect a more measured driver could likely best that number. GM says it expects that some customers will be able to go nearly 1,500 miles between fill ups (with the assumption of regular charging intervals) and given our time in the car, it certainly seems feasible.

All told, the new Volt is a perfect example of a model that benefits from its newfound maturity. Free to set aside much the gimmickry that was required of the first generation model in order to grab the attention of potential buyers, Chevrolet was able to focus on delivering exactly what those customers want from a plug-in hybrid today – a car which can integrate seamlessly into mainstream motoring without making any sacrifices along the way, managing to return very impressive efficiency while also providing an engaging driving experience when you call upon it to do so.

Highs

  • Significantly more all-electric range than previous model
  • Lighter, sportier handling
  • Quieter gas engine operation
  • Includes some of the latest connected features

Lows

  • Styling is more generic than previous model
  • Interior feels slightly low rent