Review: 2015 Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid

Mar 28, 2015 11:00 AM EDT | Benjamin Preston

We've all seen reviews of top-of-the-line cars and trucks, but how many people actually buy them? So you're on a budget. Welcome to The Regular Guy, where regular guys and gals can read about the cars normal people buy.

According to statistics, Americans bought just over 100,000 fully electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles in 2014. Nearly 19,000 of those were Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrids. For vehicles of the electric persuasion, that seems a solid number, but only until you consider that overall, 16.5 million vehicles sold in the U.S. last year.

EVs and plug-ins are, when taken in context of the general market, still a relatively new thing for today's motorists. As in the days when horsecart-driving farmers slowly transitioned to Model T Fords and other motorized conveyances, the differences between today's conventional gas vehicles and EVs can be confusing for the neophyte. First off, when you need to plug one in to charge its batteries, where should you go?

I had the same question when I picked up a Volt this month, and finding the answer came by way of a more or less circuitous route. Like many gasoline-baptized drivers, I at first lacked the mindset required to make optimum use of one of these electrified contraptions. Luckily, there was a learning curve.

Fully charged, a Volt will go about 40 miles on battery power alone before a 1.4-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine switches on to charge the batteries as you drive. That 40-mile range—which is meant to get you to and from your around-town errands—disappears quickly, and the gasoline motor isn't nearly as efficient. It does, however, give you about 300 miles of extra range, putting it above most modern pure electrics, in terms of how far one can travel between refueling stops.

So, where do you charge a plug-in? I called OnStar, GM's handy one-click assistance service to find out. The lady on the other end of the line had a Michigan accent and was unfamiliar with the niceties of electric vehicle charging. She said she had a list of Volt-friendly charging stations, but couldn't tell me if I could plug into any SAE charging port (I could have) and sounded shaky as she guided me to a station.

Finding a charging hookup near where you're going to be is another difficulty. I had some friends to visit in the San Fernando Valley, but the nearest charging station was several miles away. I hadn't yet found the charging apparatus in the trunk that plugs into any wall outlet, but later found out that it was worthless unless you were planning on plugging in for at least several hours. I was staying in an urban part of Venice Beach, so using the portable charger wasn't an option either. Eventually, I found a friend with a charger attached to her house.

Later in the week, when I was taking a weekend class at Santa Barbara City College, 90 miles away, the Chargepoint website said I could find a charger on campus. I checked every road and parking lot there and could find nothing. Finally, I settled on a charger in a municipal lot nearby (sort of, it still took me 10 minutes at a full gallop to get back to class). A couple in a Fiat 500e were in the only other space, and complained that the charger I had nosed up to didn't work for them. Luckily, it worked in the Volt, and I plugged in for a couple of hours and got myself 25 miles of range for $1.97. Unfortunately, the municipal lot policies didn't differentiate my use of the lot from a run-of-the-mill gas-engined parking job, so I had to pay an additional $6 for use of the lot.

No matter how you slice it, $8 for 25 miles is no good in a country where it costs less—even in California, where gas is more than $3 per gallon—to go the same distance in a big truck that gets 15 mpg.

External infrastructure anxiety issues aside, the Volt is, overall, a nicely appointed car. Chevrolet executed fit and finish well, both inside and out. The seats were comfortable; firm, but with enough give not to feel Teutonic. The dash was simple and well laid out, although remembering where the many infotainment buttons were in relation to everything else was a task. The instrument cluster and center screen were easy to read and looked good. Outside, the car has pleasing lines and gives off a respectable vibe.

The Volt's 149-hp electric motor that powers the front wheels cranks out 273 pound-feet of instant torque, so it's a blast at stoplights. Among the drivers of other cars in traffic, even the most aggressive of them have trouble keeping up with the Volt below 50 miles per hour.

The Volt's large battery pack forms a T-shaped skeleton that gives the car a lower center of gravity than most vehicles. That should mean that it would be fun to throw it around curves on twisty roads, and for the most part it is. But it was a tiny bit squirrelly at higher freeway speeds, and in deep curves, the presence of bumps caused the car to change its mind about its directional preference on a regular basis. I chalked it up to the standard low rolling resistance tires, which are never a performance plus.

But then the Volt was probably meant more for the hypermiling crowd than it was those who get a thrill out of pushing a machine to its limits.

I found the limit of the Volt's gasoline engine one night as I was driving up the Conejo Grade, headed toward L.A. from Santa Barbara. The hill piles on 1000 feet in elevation in less than three miles, and anyone who has driven it in a car that's just adequate on flat land knows that the 7-percent grade will quickly turn the 65-mph freeway cruise into a 40-mph crawl for about 10 excruciating uphill minutes. 

The Volt kept up with fast lane traffic for the first two-thirds of the climb, but after several minutes of pedal-to-the-metal hammering, there was a very noticeable lag, followed by a yellow warning sign on the instrument panel. "Reduced output!" it said. The battery was out of juice and the gasoline generator had been unable to keep up with the sizable demand I had placed upon it.

As with other GM cars, the navigation and infotainment systems work well, although people used to dealing with Google Maps on a regular basis might prefer Google's layout and features. If a call comes in while you're driving, the call information blocks out the nav map. The instrument panel display can be switched to a mode than shows simple arrow directions so that you can still see where you're going, but they're not as good as the map and require the driver to be a good judge of distance in yards.

Less useful was the Volt's voice recognition software, which was unable to understand me, even with the windows closed and while I was speaking in the clearest voice I could muster. "Call OnStar," I said. "I don't understand you. Please repeat," the computer shot back. "Call. On. Star." I said, slowly this time, and with my best, most neutral pronunciation. "Calling Josh Pitts," it said, and dialed the number of a friend who was most likely in bed by the time. "CALL. ON. STAR," I shouted. "Did you say, 'Thai restaurants?'" it retorted. "NOOOO &%$#!!!!" I shouted, the spittle forming at the corners of my mouth belying the white rage that was building inside me. I never did get what I asked for, and grumbled to myself that I would rather have had low expectations exceeded than high ones trampled by failure.

One of the main advantages of the Volt is its four-door hatchback bodystyle. The back seats fold down and the resulting flat space is enough to fit any manner of unwieldy objects. It's unfortunate that GM's engineers didn't go the extra mile to make the seat backs fold completely flat. And perhaps they should have designed the front passenger-side seat to fold flat, too, to accommodate things like 2x4s and surfboards. But having a large, horizontally-oriented interior space accessible through a large opening is a convenience that's difficult to come by on many models. I was able to stuff a 9-foot, six-inch surfboard inside the car, although I had to cover anything it touched with towels to keep from getting wax everywhere.

At some point, Volt owners will find the front wind deflector dragging on the ground. Its purpose is ostensibly to improve aerodynamics and fuel economy, but it dragged and scraped every driveway and speed bump the car passed over. The fact that the car doesn't come with a spare tire is a huge bummer, as I found out when I ran over a bolt that put a gaping hole in the right front tire. The puncture was too large for the onboard air compressor and flat-repair goop to do its job, so I was subjected to a last-minute scramble to find a taxi.

All cars need spare tires and wheel-changing tools, period. What if I were in the middle of the desert in Utah? Help may not have come for hours.

Despite its few issues, the Volt is a charming car that's just fine for long trips. Its exterior lines are unconventional, but clean — I'd go so far as to say handsome. Owners who want the Volt to reach its full environmental friendliness potential will have their work cut out for them, but other than finding charging points, driving a Volt is as easy as pushing the on-off button and shifting into drive. Acceleration was not only quick, but smooth, since there were no gears to switch through.

If you end up getting one, you're buying into a lifestyle more than anything else. Taking a Volt home and neglecting its plug-in aspect would be a terrible waste. But if you can handle the discipline required to do this car right, it's a nice daily driver and may leave you feeling a sense of purpose as you plug it into the side of your house every evening.

One perk is that the federal government offers a $7,500 tax credit as an incentive to buy this car. Several state governments offer their own incentives. California's, for example, is $1,500.

Keep in mind, though, that the all-new 2016 Chevrolet Volt should be available later this year. That will undoubtedly mean that deals will present themselves for the 2015 model, but the new one is expected to be vastly superior in terms of technology and range.

By the numbers: 2015 Chevrolet Volt

MSRP: $35,170 (includes $825 destination charge)

Power and drive wheels: 83-hp, 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine /149-hp electric motor, front-wheel drive

Transmission: 1-speed automatic transmission (with selectable "low" range)

EPA fuel economy: 98 mpge (electric-only mode); 37 mpg (with gasoline "range extender" engine)

In showrooms: Now

Benjamin Preston is an automotive journalist who holds the dubious distinction of having worked both as a writer and editor for the New York Times Automobiles section and as a mechanic at the Pep Boys in Fredericksburg, Va. As a journalist, his work has taken him to a few war zones, including Baghdad, Iraq, and the Detroit auto show.

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