2011 Chevrolet Volt review:

2011 Chevrolet Volt

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Chevrolet makes operation of the Volt probably a little too complicated, as the shifter has Drive and Low modes, and another button cycles the power train operation through Normal, Sport, and Mountain modes. The Volt's early adopters will revel in finding the most efficient mode, but most people won't want to bother figuring out when to pull the shifter down to Low, or push the button for Mountain or Sport.

Sport delivers a more satisfying response from the accelerator, as the car moves sluggishly in Normal mode. But the difference comes down to acceleration tuning; push the accelerator hard in Normal and the Volt easily pulls out ahead of traffic. In any mode, the Volt feels heavy, due to the fact it weighs 3,781 pounds.

The simple-looking shifter includes a Low setting, which maximizes regeneration, slowing the car drastically whenever you lift off the accelerator.

The electric drive system shows its virtues in heavy traffic, as the Volt easily creeps forward at slow speeds. At every stop light and instance of stalled traffic, it will only burn electricity associated with the climate control and accessories, limiting range loss, as opposed to gasoline-engine cars that still burn gas while idling. Even when the Volt's battery is exhausted, the engine can shut down at traffic stops.

At moderate and freeway speeds, the Volt drives comfortably, effortlessly keeping up with traffic and its suspension smoothing over rough asphalt. Road noise is audible even when the car is operating in pure battery mode, the interior sound levels being similar to those of most midsize sedans. The Volt's weight makes it generally feel more planted than similarly sized cars, and should make it less susceptible to wind buffeting.

With a full charge, the car will show a range of about 35 miles. Driving up hills or giving it heavy acceleration reduces that range quickly, but going downhill quickly adds range. When the battery runs out, the display shows a range of about 350 miles with a full gas tank. That range fluctuates with driving style as well, but the greater range masks the changes.

No average fuel economy
Fuel economy for the Volt is a difficult topic. The EPA says it gets 37 mpg when the gas engine is running, and 93 mpg gasoline equivalent when operating in electric mode. After driving the car through three quarters of a tank and two and a half charges, we found our car showed a total average of 61.8 mpg.

When the Volt is running off its battery pack, the instrument cluster shows electric range.

But that number is essentially meaningless, as the fuel economy will differ drastically based on how the Volt is driven. Charge it up every night and only use a couple of gallons of gas a week, and the fuel economy display could rise above 100 mpg. Take it on a road trip and rely on the gas engine to work as a generator, and the fuel economy will drop closer to 37 mpg.

Charging from a 220-volt outlet takes about 4 hours, and from a 110-volt outlet about 12 hours, according to Chevrolet. The charge port, a standard J1772 electric vehicle plug, sits on the driver-side front fender. The gas tank only has a 9.3-gallon capacity, showing that Chevrolet did not intend the Volt to be a road trip car.

The gas engine is a small, 1.4-liter four-cylinder. Because it does not directly drive the wheels but usually only acts as a generator, it runs at a few set speeds, allowing for optimal fuel efficiency. Normal gasoline engines run through a wide range of speeds, leading to less efficiency and more wear and tear.

The Volt relies on regenerative braking to help keep the battery charged, but it leads to uneven stopping behavior. The brakes initially come on lightly, as the regenerative operation takes over. Mechanical braking doesn't take over until you've pushed the pedal down hard, at which stage it gets grabby. Using Low mode with the shifter puts the car into a heavy regenerative mode, so that it slows drastically when the accelerator lifts.

When the engine is on, switching the power train to Mountain mode causes the engine to run at a higher speed, making it more audible. Even when not in Mountain mode, the engine will switch to a higher speed if needed, such as when climbing hills. When running off the battery, switching it to Mountain mode merely seems to reduce the range on the display.

When the gas engine is working as a generator, the instrument cluster shows the gas tank level and range.

Although the Volt offers a Sport mode, it is as much of a sports car as a Camry. It uses an electric-power-steering rig with ZF components, high-quality equipment. At low speeds, the steering feels well-powered, making it easy to turn the wheels, whereas at greater speeds, the power assist is reduced, allowing good road feel.

The low-set battery pack gives the Volt very interesting handling characteristics, so that the car never feels tippy. Hitting a corner at speed, the car is more likely to four-wheel-drift than sway excessively.

CNET editor Antuan Goodwin had the opportunity to take the Volt out on the track, and had this to say about the handling: "While the sedan didn't get out of sorts during our laps around Laguna Seca, it didn't exactly thrill, either. Understeer, that old friend of the safe and predictable production car, was present in a major way, which is to be expected. Also present was a bit of body roll, although not in the quantities that we expected, thanks to the Volt's T-shaped battery pack lowering the vehicle's center of gravity."

In sum
Chevrolet did an excellent job with the Volt's power train, mixing substantial electric-mode range with a gas engine, leading to potentially outstanding fuel economy. Although the different drive modes seem a little complicated, the car's normal drive feel is even better than many gas engine cars. The power steering is well-tuned, and the battery helps the handling. The uneven braking is the main problem area for performance tech.

With standard navigation, Bluetooth phone, and a Bose stereo, the cabin of the Volt features first-rate electronics. The associated smartphone app offers good connectivity and remote operation. The only area where the Volt is lacking is in driver assistance features. Its rearview camera is excellent, but it doesn't offer adaptive cruise control or a blind-spot detection system.

Chevrolet put a few nice exterior design elements into the Volt, but seems to be attempting to make the car not stand out. Its front end looks particularly conventional. The hatchback is a practical design feature, but the lack of a rear bench seat limits passenger room. The touch buttons on the interface are a neat innovation and the onscreen menus look nice, but Chevrolet could have put some more thought into a logical arrangement.

Tech specs
Model 2011 Chevrolet Volt
Trim n/a
Power train 1.4-liter, 4-cylinder generator, 16 kWh lithium ion battery pack, electric drive motor
EPA fuel economy 93 mpg equivalent electric/37 mpg gasoline operation
Observed fuel economy 61.8 mpg
Navigation Standard hard-drive-based with traffic
Bluetooth phone support Standard
Disc player MP3-compatible single CD/DVD player
MP3 player support iPod integration
Other digital audio Onboard hard drive, USB drive, satellite radio
Audio system Bose 7-speaker system
Driver aids Rearview camera
Base price $40,280
Price as tested $44,680

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