First Drive

FIRST DRIVE: 2013 Chevrolet Volt

Chevrolet Volt makes green driving easy, for a price

2013 Chevrolet Volt - front 3/4 view static
AT A GLANCE
PRICE
$42,000 base. $48,030 as tested.
FUEL CONSUMPTION
NR Canada (L/100 km): 2.5 city. 2.5 highway. 2.0 combined.
POWERTRAIN
1.4-litre DOHC four-cylinder, 84-horsepower, 111-kW drive motor, 55 kW generator motor, combined out
There are two ways to look at the Chevrolet Volt, depending on your lifestyle and driving habits.

If you spend the majority of your life in an urban environment, with daily or occasional forays to shops or the workplace, averaging less than 40 kilometres a day and occasional longer journeys you would rarely visit a gas pump.

On the other hand, if your routine includes a regular trip of more than 40 km a day, this might be a very expensive way to save a few dollars on gas.

Although marketed as an electric car, the Volt is really an extended range vehicle. It operates on electric power only 99 percent of the time and uses a gasoline engine to generate electricity to keep the batteries charged.

No range anxiety

2013 Chevrolet Volt - rear 3/4 view motion.jpg
The Volt is better than a pure electric vehicle in one primary and very significant way: there is no range anxiety, no stress over making it home or to the next plug. When pure electrics run out of power, they stop while you await a tow truck.

Should your drive exceed the Volt’s battery capacity, the little engine will turn on automatically and provide enough charge to get you wherever you need to go; more than 400 km in most instances.

Another way to think of it is that you can actually plan on a trip away from home base, something you can’t do in a pure electric car. Instead of having to use another vehicle or form of transportation for such trips, you jump in the Volt and proceed as you would with any other car.

Not perfect

Having said that, and as good as the Volt is in this respect, there is a cost and the Volt isn’t perfect as a car.

At $46,530 before taxes and delivery charges this is a steep cost for going green. That price puts you amongst some serious competition, and is about double what you’d pay for a similarly sized and badged compact that gets about the same fuel mileage as the Volt with its engine used frequently. 

In my real world 350-km test loop, about 275 of which is highway driving at 100 -110 km/h on roads with plenty of steep grades and hills, the Volt made the first 47 kilometres on electric power alone and the remainder with the gasoline engine running. On some long grades and passing situations the gas engine helped out a bit, as it is designed to do under maximum or sustained throttle use. 

Doing the math

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After filling up and checking my power bill, (13.5 cents/kWh) I concluded it cost 64 cents for the electricity used for the trip and the gas engine averaged 6.06 litres/100 km.

Total cost: just shy of $26. Pretty impressive. But an economy car or hybrid costing half as much and capable of a real world 6-7 litres/100 km would have cost $27-$32 for the same trip. In this scenario the Volt does not look too good.

But for the rest of the test period I drove the Volt for my daily “chores” around the city averaging less than 30-km per trip and never once did the gas engine come into play.

I parked it in my garage every night and plugged it into a 110-volt outlet running up a charge of less than 60 cents a day.

Now we’re talking – and this is where the Volt shines – with operating costs at this level and the ability to make lengthy trips when necessary.

A few caveats here. 1) The cost of electricity does not include the environmental cost of generating it whether at a nuclear plant or by burning coal or oil. 2) There may be government grants or tax breaks for buying a Volt, in some but not all parts of the country. 3) The Volt requires premium gas, and 4) The extra $20,000 to purchase the Volt compared to a similarly sized and equipped compact car would buy more than 15,000 litres of gasoline which, even at a lowly 10 litres/100 km would be enough for 150,000 km of driving.

Eight-year battery warranty

The Volt uses a 180-kilogram, T-shaped, 16 kWh lithium-ion battery pack located beneath the floor. It carries an eight-year warranty. It requires 10-16 hours to recharge from a 110-volt outlet, depending on ambient temperature, roughly half that time if charged from a special 220-volt charger hard-wired into your household circuit.

The system allows you to schedule charges to take advantage of off-peak periods when rates are lower. You can also manage and monitor the charging process via computer on MyVolt.ca or smartphone through RemoteLink, a smartphone application powered by OnStar.

No transmission

There are two electric motors, one to power the front wheels and one that acts as a generator to recharge the battery.  A 1.4-litre gasoline engine drives that generator. There is no transmission, because electric motors produce maximum power at idle and can spin as fast as necessary; no need for gears.

The Volt is built in Michigan on the same platform used for the Chevrolet Cruze and Buick Verano. The quality of materials and assembly is first rate, truly impressive, even for this price. The Volt has been on sale since the fall of 2011 and has received excellent marks for quality and reliability.

High-tech interior

2013 Chevrolet Volt - front seat.JPG
The high tech nature of the car is evident inside where the instrument panel and a variety of configurable displays combined with a two-tone theme – jet black and ceramic white on the tester result in a modern sophisticated look. Two bright 18-cm color displays dominate. Easy to read day or night, the are positioned in front of the driver and atop the center stack and provide information on and control of everything from mileage and battery state to audio to climate control.

The latter is the biggest draw on battery power – especially in winter when defrost, seat heat and other powered items are required. Heat from the gasoline engine is needed to be comfortable in cold conditions; thankfully, in this respect, the engine starts automatically in cold conditions. 

Seats four

The Volt is a four-passenger car with a hard console between the rear seats due to the battery pack within. The rear seat is probably best left to those of very small stature. Front seat occupants get a decent amount of room but might rub elbows on occasion. Visibility is hampered by a high beltline, narrow windows, split rear window and thick pillars, but reversing is easier thanks to a standard rear-view camera.

The hatchback covers a useful amount of space, despite the presence of the battery pack across the width of the car.   

The test vehicle was very well equipped: seven-speaker Bose audio system with USB port and satellite radio, wireless connectivity, automatic climate control, remote start, universal home remote, navigation system, Chevrolet MyLink, heated front seats, keyless ignition, power windows and locks, remote keyless entry, heated power mirrors and OnStar. 

In terms of operation, the Volt drives like a very quiet and well-equipped compact car. You don’t start the engine when you push the button, you wake up the electric system, put it in drive and off you go.

Electric torque on tap

2013 Chevolet Volt - engine bay.JPG
There is an impressive amount of punch from the start because the big electric motor produces maximum power at idle. When the gas engine does kick in, 40-50-km down the road, it comes in the form of a little vibration and slight sound doing little to alter a quiet and refined state of affairs.

Braking is similarly unobtrusive with much better pedal modulation than most hybrids and others using regenerative brakes.

The ride is pleasant and taut with plenty of compliance and good control of body motion in the turns. 

Since its introduction in the fall of 2011, about 100 Canadians a month have bought a Volt.

If you are interested in being green and your lifestyle and driving habits fit, you could join this elite group.

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