The Volt isn’t just about good mileage

2011 Chevrolet Volt Review

Chevy Volt

Chevrolet’s sporty Volt lives up to, and exceeds, its hype.

Current hybrids are great, but Volt shoves hybrids forward. Volt is a plug-in hybrid that runs exclusively on electric power that is stored in its lithium ion batteries.

You can use a provided power cord and charger that stow neatly in the trunk to plug it into a 120-volt outlet in your garage and the next morning you’ll have a full charge in its Voltec system.

That full charge, at least for me, ranged from 43-48 miles. I could keep driving, because the Volt also has a small 1.4-liter I4 gasoline engine that helps generate power for the batteries. Think of it as a generator.

2011 Chevy Volt snapshot

Click to enlarge.

While other hybrids use electric and gas power to propel them, most use the electricity just to get the car moving at lower speeds and then shift over to gasoline power at roughly 20 mph. Gas powers most hybrid engines on the freeway, too, with the gas engine directly powering the transmission and wheels.

With Volt, after your charge wears off, the gas engine supplies power to the batteries, which power the silky smooth 83-horsepower electric motor that’s capable of 4,800 rpm. Above 70 mph, Volt’s gas engine also supplies some power directly to the front drive wheels. Because Volt has a 9.3 gallon fuel tank, gasoline provides roughly another 300-325 miles of range.

Volt’s 1-speed automatic is so smooth and the electric power so quiet and smooth that you easily get up to city and highway speeds as well, or better than many compact or smaller cars. Motor Trend magazine says Volt does 0-60 in 8.8 seconds purely on the battery, a tad faster when the gas engine engages. The top speed is 101 mph.

For more power, the Volt defaults to the normal driving mode. You press a button on the dash and select Power and you have a ton of torque to jump your Volt up to 60 mph.

Volt has a lot more going for it. Handling is good, not really sporty, but the car feels substantial and well balanced, due to those batteries being spread under the cockpit. That brings some weight back off the front drive wheels. Volt corners well with no real lean in corners and the steering feel is a little heavier than you’d expect in an entry-level compact, more like you’d expect in a small Lexus, Infiniti or Mercedes.

Ride is well controlled and smoother than in many compacts. There’s independent suspension up front and a semi-independent suspension in back that seems tuned for Midwest roads. The larger bumps don’t disturb you and the little choppy ones are softened to become more tolerable.

Braking is excellent with four-wheel discs and ABS, plus a stability system.

Here’s another little functional plus compared with standard hybrids. When you stop in a standard hybrid, the gas engine turns off to save fuel, and with it the car’s climate control system usually shuts off completely. With the Volt, all electric power remains and you stay comfortable.

There are more pluses.

Volt is incredibly quiet inside. It feels like you’re riding in a compact to midsize luxury car.

2011 Chevy Volt rear

GM's hybrid offers comfortable ride, solid handling, ample storage.

The bright metallic red test car featured a brown over tan interior with tan ventilated leather seats, part of a $1,395 premium package that also included 3-speed heat to the seats. The interior styling and well-formed, supportive seats also give a feeling of luxury. The two bucket-style rear seats also are extremely comfortable. Gauges are modern, simple and attractive with blue and green the prominent colors. Green shows you when you’re on battery power, both on the main gauges and if you turn on the navigation/radio screen atop the center stack. A “leaf” button allows you to see on the screen how many miles you’ve run on battery or gas. It also will tell you how long it will take you to charge the car at 120 or 240 volts.

I only have 120 in my garage and I got a full charge in about 10 hours. The gauge said a full charge at 240 volts would take 3 to 4 hours.

The EPA rates this at 93 mpg equivalent on electric and 37 mpg on gas. My test car said it was averaging 70 mpg and I got 66.4 mpg, including a trip to Madison. On that, my charge ran out about Johnson Creek while on cruise control. I felt a slight change when the car gained a touch of power, then smoothed out as the battery indicator hit zero. If I hadn’t been watching, I likely would not have noticed the change.

Chevy Volt interior

The EPA rates this at 93 mpg equivalent on electric and 37 mpg on gas. My test car said it was averaging 70 mpg and I got 66.4 mpg, including a trip to Madison.

There is a big hatch in back to allow you to pile in the boxes, and groceries. Volt has 18 cubic feet of cargo room, more than most compacts and many midsize cars. You can fold down the two rear seats to create even more flat space to haul larger items.

The 2011 Volt lists at $40,280, which seems high, and there is a $7,500 government tax credit. Figuring that in, the cost is $32,780. A Prius V, the top level that most closely competes, starts at $28,780 and has a long list of options that could push it well over $30,000. For my money, the Volt creates a much better driving experience.

The 2012 Volt will start at $39,145. Volt is not available everywhere just yet. Michigan has the closest dealer, but Chicago area dealers are to have Volts this fall. I’m told by GM that Milwaukee area dealers should have Volts by late spring.

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