2016's Top Ten Tech Cars: Chevrolet Volt

Lighter, faster, and more frugal

Today’s US $2-a-gallon gasoline doesn’t bode well for the plug-in Volt’s showroom sales in America. But when gas prices spike again, the Volt hybrid may end up looking like one of the smartest fuel savers on the planet—and for one-third the price of a Tesla Model S.

This second-generation Volt is a green sweetheart to drive, and improved in nearly every way over the original: sleeker, lighter, faster, quieter, and more efficient.

Let’s cut to the chase. On a light-footed test drive north of San Francisco, I managed precisely 60 all-electric miles (97 kilometers) before the gasoline engine kicked in. That beat the official 53-mile estimate, itself a 40 percent improvement over the first-generation Volt. At that point, the Volt’s new direct-injection engine smoothly blended combustion with electric power to offer 675 km of total range—no range anxiety in this car. As we crossed the 106-mile mark on this trip, we’d burned exactly one gallon of gasoline—3.8 liters—along with $1.50 worth of wall electricity.

In other words, we spent $3.50 to cover 106 miles. Go ahead and try to do that in a Mini Cooper. There’s not a gasoline, diesel, or conventional hybrid on the road that can match that efficiency, which equated to 2.0 L/100 km (120 mpge) over the electric portion and better than 70 mpg overall. As advertised, owners who commute fewer than 53 miles round-trip can punch into work every day without ever using a drop of gasoline. Purely coincidentally, the Volt’s battery supplies a half-gallon’s worth of gasoline energy. So if you manage 53 miles (85 km) on a charge—which we exceeded without even glancing at the helpful gauges that coach you toward efficient driving—that works out exactly to the official U.S. estimate of 106 mpge.

And you won’t sacrifice performance. The new Volt’s curb weight drops by more than 90 kilograms (200 pounds), to about 1,607 kg, and the propulsion unit alone is 45 kg lighter. The new four-cylinder engine is more powerful, runs on regular rather than premium fuel, and operates at lower rpm to reduce the drone that plagued the original.

The dual electric motors are markedly revised, sharing no common parts with the first-gen Volt. Total horsepower remains at 149, but it now has a very hefty 401 newton meters (296 foot-pounds) of torque—21 more than before. The upshot is an 8.4-second surge to 60 mph (97 km/h). Perhaps more important, it gets to 30 mph in just 2.6 seconds, 0.7 second quicker than before—and remarkably, just two-tenths of a second slower than the 220-horsepower Volkswagen GTI that served as my “rabbit” during the driving test. One of the Volt’s coolest new features is a steering-wheel paddle that triggers regenerative braking. Grab the paddle as you’re entering turns or rolling up to stoplights and it feels like downshifting in a sports car, even as you’re saving energy.

Battery mass drops by 10 kg, and there are 192 lithium-ion cells in the Volt’s T-shaped, under-floor battery pack, down from 288 before. Yet thanks to a tweak in battery chemistry, capacity is up 8 percent, to 18.4 kilowatt-hours—the secret to the Volt’s newly extended electric range.

And at $26,495 after a $7,500 federal tax giveaway (er, credit) in the United States, the Volt is a bargain. The Chevy is not only two-fifths the cost of a Tesla and one-fifth the cost of a BMW i8, it’s actually less than the $33,500 price of the average new car in America—and $1,200 less than its lower-performing predecessor.

The Volt isn’t the only Chevy that will test American appetites for electrified cars: Late this year, the Chevrolet Bolt goes into production, a pure EV hatchback that promises 200 all-electric miles, for an estimated price of around $30,000 after federal and local tax breaks.

And what will they call the Bolt’s electric successor? Well, it will have to be “Jolt,” because “Colt” has already been taken.