The Chevy Volt is a brilliant car, a ground-breaking revolution – and quite possibly the vehicle that could lead to the revitalization of GM. But the reasons for its superiority are probably not what you think. Yes, this is an amazing small car – it’s peppy, economical, and provides a tight driving experience. For some, it could be one of the best financial decisions you make. But the Volt’s real brilliance has more to do with the paltry EV infrastructure in the US. This is a car that is perfectly positioned for the scarcity of electric charging stations as they exist today. Whether the infrastructure catches up, or the car lags behind, is the only unanswered question.
You might already know that this is the car that Motor Trend picked for the 2011 Car of the Year. It deserves the accolades. Not to diss a reputable magazine, but the fact remains that most of the coverage of the Volt has focused on the electric motor specifications and gee-whiz smartphone features. The Volt is actually a chameleon car – it can work as a commuter vehicle, or for long trips, or as a sporty family sedan for those who think a hybrid is something that uses E85 fuel. Yet, spend a day or two in the car, fill up the tank a few times, and charge the car back to a full battery state and you can see that the Volt is actually an amazingly well-suited vehicle to the current upstart EV infrastructure.
In a drive from downtown Detroit – using a Volt with barely 40 miles under its belt (and all of them on the electric motor) – all the way to Chicago, spending a few extra hours on some winding country roads and around Lake Michigan, and even testing this fledgling “extended range” vehicle in a circuitous downtown area, we found the Volt to be a smart and economical ride. The car adapts to your driving preferences. If your job is 10 minutes from where you live, it is possible to charge the car each night and never buy any gas. Yet, since charging stations are so sparse, you can also just use gas for now.
Getting behind the wheel
Before we explain how that all works, here’s the most remarkable finding: Once we slid into the driver’s seat, it became obvious that the Volt uses the same platform as the Chevy Cruze. You know this because the car is roughly the same size, and the steering wheel has the exact same options (cruise control, voice options) for example. The two cars look similar, although the Volt has a much more streamlined look and the Cruze is slightly more bulbous. Inside the Volt, there are some obvious differences: there’s a splashy side panel artistic rendering that looks like magnets circling around atoms. There are two LCD displays in the Volt, one behind the steering wheel and one in the center console area.
Unlike the Chevy Cruze, the Volt features a well-molded plastic dashboard that looks about the same as the VW Jetta we reviewed recently. That is to say, it is trim and well-designed, but not exactly luxurious or that distinctive. In fact, some have complained that the Volt doesn’t really stick out in a crowd, and both the interior and exterior are slightly understated. That’s likely because Chevy intends the Volt to be an everyday car for getting around town. It’s positioned for utility, not comfort.
That becomes obvious when you start making adjustments to the interior controls. For example, to save on power, Chevy chose to use a manual latch for sliding the seat forward and back. One of the strangest things about the car is that there is also a pump on the driver’s side seat for raising and lowering your eye level position. You literally pump the seat up or down. (A GM engineer told me some of the people who designed the Volt at GM are over 6-feet tall; they probably wanted to be able to drive it.) Like the Cruze, there is also a mechanical switch for enabling the cruise control, which is handy because you can then set the cruise speed without having to switch on cruise each time. There’s another switch, again the same on the Cruze, which you can use to prevent the kids from unlocking their doors in the back.
All of the similarities to the Cruze end when you realize the car runs on an electric motor. Now, there is a raging controversy about whether the gas engine used to power the electric motor actually turns the wheels. There is a condition with the Volt where, driving at high speeds up hill, the gas engine does mechanically link with the wheels to provide some power. But even in this condition, an electric motor is still providing power as well.