2012 Chevrolet Volt review:

2012 Chevrolet Volt

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The bad news is...
Brakes aside, the bad news is that the Volt has one of the worst dashboard designs that I've ever endured. This is, of course, partially my subjective opinion -- I'm just not a fan of the Volt's interior styling -- but there are a number of demonstrable human-machine interface design issues that I'd like to point out.

Chevrolet Volt dashboard
The LCD instrument cluster throws far too many elements at the driver without a clear visual hierarchy. Josh Miller/CNET

Let's start with the instrument cluster. The Volt uses a full LCD to display the vehicle's speed, battery level, fuel level, range, trip information, green driving gauge, and so on. However, the interface that's placed in front of the driver is so poorly organized that it's difficult to simply glance down and see your speed. At times there are almost a dozen visual elements scattered across a black background with little visual hierarchy to differentiate the important elements from the secondary. It's a mess of icons and text, all competing for your attention. Ford's MyFord Touch display in the Fusion Hybrid and Focus Electric presents just as much information without feeling overwhelming.

The center stack is a blob of a glossy plastic covered with small capacitive touch buttons with text labels. I'm not completely averse to capacitive buttons and most (though not all) of them feature raised nubs that add a bit of tactile feedback. However, the buttons are all evenly spaced and spread out around the stack. The small all-caps text buttons are difficult to read at a glance and sometimes bear unintuitive abbreviations. No kidding, it took me a full minute to find the NAV button on my first try. I challenged everyone who took a ride with me during the week to find various functions and found that I wasn't the only one having difficulties here. This is hardly an ideal setup for use in a moving vehicle.

Chevrolet Volt dashboard
The center stack is covered in capacitive buttons with tiny text labels that are difficult to read at a glance. Josh Miller/CNET

Thankfully, the Volt does use physical knobs for volume control and navigation and selection of items on the display at the top of the stack. That display is a 7-inch touch screen, which gives a second way to interact with the Volt's display. The virtual interface of this screen is, thankfully, simple to operate and easy to understand. Functions are about where you expect them to be and the learning curve is an easy one.

While I'm complaining, the Volt's battery pack necessitates that the back seats be buckets and not the conventional bench. While this looks cool, it does limit the passenger load to four rather than the more typical five. Additionally, Chevrolet has chosen to leave a huge gap between the seats, so there's no real separation between the cabin area and the storage area. This isn't that big of a deal until you have to make one of those emergency stops I mentioned earlier and your groceries in the trunk go spilling into the back seat.

Cabin comfort and tech features
The Volt is powered by a revolutionary power train, but its dashboard tech is decidedly conventional. Keyless entry and push-button start are standard, as is a remote starter system. The standard touch-screen interface puts green driving information, charging and battery level information, and audio sources at the driver's fingertips.

Audio sources include Bluetooth hands-free calling (but not audio streaming), a USB port with iPhone/iPod connectivity, an auxiliary audio input, SiriusXM Satellite Radio, AM/FM radio, and a single-slot CD player. Out of the box, the Volt ships with a standard OnStar telematics connection and three years of service that includes turn-by-turn navigation. To initiate a trip, you must first call OnStar to request a destination and, although the directions are viewable on the Volt's display, you don't get a scrollable map.

OnStar buttons
Skip the Volt's tech options and you'll still be able to navigate by asking OnStar for help. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Stepping up to the onboard navigation system adds locally stored maps, points of interest, and traffic data from SiriusXM for as long as you have service. (Three months are included with each new Volt.) This isn't the best navigation system that I've tested -- it's actually rather rudimentary -- but it's better than having to call OnStar for every trip. I was annoyed by the clunky destination search and limited points-of-interest database, which included locations where you could fill up on gasoline, diesel, natural gas, and E85, but no 240V charging stations. D'oh.

The navigation system also adds 30GB of hard-drive storage space for ripping audio from your CDs and rolls in an energy-efficient Bose premium audio system with seven speakers (including a subwoofer).

The only other tech option is a rear camera system that includes a proximity-detecting parking-assist feature.

2012 Chevrolet Volt
The Volt's engine bay wowed me with its performance and flexibility, but the mediocre dashboard design nearly soured the experience. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

In sum
We're rating this year's Volt slightly lower than last year's. While the performance score remains the same, we docked the Volt a pair of points in the cabin tech category because its competition has gotten much, much better and comparable 2012 vehicles offer features the Volt simply doesn't, (such as Bluetooth audio, app integration, and Web connectivity.) Likewise, I've lowered the design score slightly because I found the instrumentation and dashboard organization to be distractingly annoying.

The 2012 Chevrolet Volt couldn't be easier to spec. Pricing starts at $39,145 and there's only one trim level. Our model was equipped with the $1,995 navigation system and the $495 Bose audio. The heated leather seats and leather-wrapped steering wheel are a $1,395 option and are not power-adjustable. Polished aluminum wheels are a $595 option and our Volt's particular shade of Crystal Red Tintcoat paint adds another $495 to the bottom line. About the only option our Volt wasn't equipped with was the rear camera, a $695 check box that you should just go ahead and mark -- in for a penny, in for a pound, right?

Without the camera package, but with an $850 destination charge, our Volt came to an as-tested price of $44,970, but you can possibly save an additional $7,500 come tax time if you qualify for the federal tax credit for owning an EV. Oh, and don't forget to budget the additional cost of having a 240V charging station installed at your house, as this car's a tremendous waste of money without it, but with regular use the charging station will allow you to get the most out of this extremely flexible vehicle.

Tech specs
Model 2012 Chevrolet Volt
Trim n/a
Power train Voltec: 111kW electric motor with 1.4-liter gasoline range extender
EPA fuel economy 94 mpge electric, 37 mpg gasoline, 60 mpg combined
Observed fuel economy approx. 52 mpg
Navigation Optional
Bluetooth phone support Yes
Disc player single-slot CD, optional DVD
MP3 player support standard analog 3.5mm auxiliary input, USB connection with iPod compatibility, optional 30GB HDD audio storage
Other digital audio SiriusXM Satellite Radio
Audio system 7-speaker, energy-efficient Bose premium audio
Driver aids Rearview camera w/ proximity detection available (not equipped)
Base price $39,145
Price as tested $44,970

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