As I sit down to write these words about the 2016 Chevrolet Volt, I just realized that it has been almost exactly 10 years since Jon Lauckner and Bob Lutz sat down and sketched out the basic architecture for what they hoped would be a truly practical plug-in car. In the days and weeks that followed, Lutz and Lauckner gathered up the core of an engineering and design team that would eventually bring the first-generation Volt to production four and a half years later. A decade on from those first discussions, the second-generation Volt is now on sale and it’s vastly superior to the original in every way.
The first-generation Volt didn’t have an easy gestation. When the idea was conceived, it was a response to both the then-rumored Tesla Roadster and also the negative blowback that GM had received from the movie, “Who Killed the Electric Car?” which documented the destruction of most of the fleet of EV1s that had been built in the 1990s.
GM had already pretty much decided to create a production version of the Volt and had pulled together the core of the engineering team led by vehicle line director Tony Posawatz and designer Bob Boniface. Unfortunately, all of this was happening against a backdrop of GM’s ever worsening financial condition. As a result, GM had to make a bunch of compromises by using existing and modified hardware that had already been developed, especially for the electric drive system. The one exception was the battery pack which was engineered from scratch around a new type of lithium-ion cell designed by South Korea’s LG Chem.
One of the big criticisms of the Gen-1 production Volt was the styling that had diverged so far from the striking concept. Unfortunately as Lutz famously said, when the concept went into the wind tunnel, it was more aerodynamic going backwards than it was going forward. The result was a chunky looking car that many critics felt looked too much like a Prius. The new model gets no such barbs. This is a much sleeker machine that looks lean and lithe by comparison.
The overall impact of sportiness reflects the hardware under the skin. Like the original, this Volt is based on the platform architecture of the Delta platform Cruze. In first-gen form, both the Volt and Cruze were a bit on the hefty side, suffering from being designed to meet divergent global safety standards without the resources to really optimize the structure. When GM’s compact car platform was reworked in a post-bankruptcy environment, the engineers put a substantial effort into multidisciplinary optimization that made the structure both stronger and lighter without having to resort to lighter but more expensive materials. The result is a Volt more than 240-pounds lighter than its predecessor.
Inside, Chevrolet has also taken a completely different approach to the cabin design. The Volt concept was revealed to the world during the same week in January 2007 that Steve Jobs revealed the iPhone. When the production design team got to work, everyone felt that capacitive touch surfaces would be the way to go in the future. Unfortunately the Volt’s touch-sensitive center stack worked only marginally better than the MyFord Touch system that came out at about the same time. Just as most other automakers have done in the years since, the new Volt returns to physical buttons, switches and knobs that can be managed by feel without having to look at it.
While the original Volt cabin looked fairly contemporary when we first saw it in 2008, it never really had the premium look one would expect of a car with a base sticker price of $40,000. The Volt echoes the direction of other recent introductions from Chevrolet like the Malibu and Cruze and is both more attractive and functional. The materials, colors and finish look as good as anything in the mainstream compact segment. The steering wheel has a pleasantly thick, leather-wrapped rim that feels good in the hands on a long drive or daily commute.
The instrument cluster is still a seven-inch LCD but the new graphics look less cartoonish and can be reconfigured to display a variety of different information. The eight-inch central touchscreen looks like a modern tablet perched on the dashboard. The high-resolution display is crisp and offers excellent viewability even when observed through polarized sunglasses at an angle. I’m still not a fan of touchscreens in cars, preferring central controllers for their precision while driving, but the infotainment system is responsive. Apple CarPlay is already available and a free software upgrade to support Android Auto should be available from dealers right about the time this is published. The Chevy MyLink voice recognition worked as well as any OEM built-in system but it still isn’t as good as cloud-based systems from Android and Apple.
One downside of the Volt’s configuration with a T-shaped battery back, is that the car has a thick center tunnel. The sloping roofline means that the back seat remains relatively snug although I was able to get my five-foot-ten-inch frame in there without my head touching the roof. My six-one son would have to duck a bit. One of the complaints of the original is that the battery tunnel precluded carrying a third rear passenger. This time, Chevrolet has added some padding on top of the battery tunnel and a third seatbelt so that a child could sit back there, straddling the battery in a pinch.
As an extended range EV, the Volt also drags along an internal combustion engine to keep the fun going even when the 18.4-kWh lithium ion battery has been officially depleted. The old 1.4-liter port-injected four-cylinder has been replaced by a newly developed 1.5-liter direct-injected unit. The new mill is part of GM’s new global small gas engine family that comes in three and four cylinder configurations from 1.0 to 1.5-liters with and without turbochargers. In non-turbo form, the Volt engine produces 101-hp. More importantly, this is a much more refined powerplant than the old engine. As a result when energy from the battery has been used up and the engine starts, it’s barely noticeable. Like before, the engine mainly runs at constant speed with that speed depending on the vehicle speed and load conditions. Another benefit of the new engine is that it now runs on regular gas instead of the premium required by the old Volt.
Overall, the second-gen Voltec propulsion system is better in every way including performance and efficiency. One thing I would personally like to see is an option for even more regenerative braking like what you can get on other EVs. Putting the shift lever in low from drive bumps up the regen a bit, but not enough to enable one pedal driving and unlike some other EVs like the BMW i3 or Tesla Model S, it won’t bring the car to a complete stop. There is also a regen-on-demand switch available on the back of the left-hand steering wheel spoke but it doesn’t provide much more regen than the low position.
The Volt was a pleasure to drive with an excellent blend of ride quality and nimbleness. Around town, matching the EPA-rated 53-mile electric range shouldn’t be a problem at all and I managed 49-miles of mostly highway driving while going to a meeting. Over a 75.4-mile round trip that day I also got 42.3 mpg on the 26.3-miles in charge sustaining mode. The fluid and continuous outpouring of torque from the electric drive makes the Volt feel far more responsive than you might expect from a 149-hp car but this again just proves the line that we buy power but we drive torque.
Compared to other compact cars, the Volt is definitely pricier although a lot more affordable than it was five years ago. The original $40,000 base sticker price has now dropped down to $34,000.
The leather-clad Volt Premier I drove came to $39,850 all-in including delivery. Is it worth it? It all depends on your usage patterns. If you do mostly long highway drives of 100 miles or more, you’d probably be better off with a conventional Cruze or Malibu. On the other hand if like most Americans you drive less than 40 miles a day, you can probably drive a Volt without putting gas in the tank more than a couple of times a year. When the new Volt was revealed last year, GM told us that more than 80 percent of all trips with the Volts in the field up to that point were gasoline-free and more than 700 million of the 1.1 billion miles traveled were on electricity. With gasoline under $2 per gallon in much of the country, it might still be a tough economic choice for now, but the Volt can let you do almost all of your driving on electrons while maintaining the freedom to take long trips without worrying about scheduling charges.