2016 Chevrolet Volt: Your mileage may vary, but it's way better than before

The first-generation Chevrolet Volt is an oddly divisive car. For some, it makes perfect sense. With regular charging, it's an electric vehicle (EV) most of the time but with the safety net of a gasoline range extender for longer excursions. For others, offering just under 40 miles of electric range per charge keeps the Chevy in the shadow of pure electric cars with bigger batteries.

For the 2016 model year, the Volt is back and while it's still not the perfect car for everyone, Chevrolet has improved it in many ways that continue to appeal to fans of the first generation and expand its niche to a wider audience. What's more, the 2016 Volt is also cheaper than its predecessor, starting at $33,995.

The Chevrolet Volt will go about 53 miles under pure electric power before its gasoline engine kicks in to extend that range.

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More range

The heart of every EV is its battery. The 2016 Volt's 18.4 kWh battery pack boasts 20 percent more capacity than last year's despite simultaneously shaving about 20 pounds of mass. The T-shaped pack's internals are also composed of fewer lithium-polymer cells (192 versus the old 288), so it's simpler in construction with fewer potential points of failure.

What that means is that the new Volt can now silently roll on pure electric power for up to 53 miles on a full charge -- that's a 40 percent increase in EV range over last year. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates the Volt's electric motors' efficiency at 106 mpge (miles per gallon gasoline equivalent), again an improvement over the previous model. During my testing, I ended up fairly close to those estimates, reaching 52.6 electric miles and 103 mpge.

Like before, the Volt combines its electric powertrain with a gasoline range extender generator. It's a direct-injected 1.5-liter engine that is able to better supply power for the electric motors when the battery is depleted, extending the Volt's cruising range to about 420 miles total (up from last year's 380 miles). When the gasoline engine is running, efficiency drops to 42 mpg, which is still very respectable for a car of this size.

Real world efficiency is a loosey-goosey combination of the gasoline and electric numbers and is highly dependent on how far you drive between recharges of the Volt's battery pack. During my 178-mile journey from San Jose, California down to Big Sur, I averaged 58.1 mpg for the trip. A person whose daily round-trip commute is less than 50 miles and who recharges every night may see 100 mpg on the dashboard at the end of the week. According to Chevrolet's figures, most current generation Volt drivers see an average of 900 miles of driving between fill-ups and it expects that average to grow beyond 1,500 miles with this new 2016 model. Your mileage, of course, will most certainly vary.

To help it achieve these gains, the 2016 Volt has a few new tricks. One of the oddest is located behind the left spoke of the Volt's steering wheel. That's not a paddle shifter, it's a "Regen On Demand" paddle that temporarily increases the regenerative braking effort to its maximum capacity when held, slowing the car and recapturing as much energy as possible. With this paddle and a bit of foresight, I could slow the car when approaching a traffic light or prepare for a curve without touching the brake pedal. It's a bit of a gimmick and doesn't really accomplish anything that I couldn't already do with a deft application of the brake pedal, but for some the Regen paddle could be a way to slightly boost their regenerative braking efficiency.

The Volt also features an active shutter feature that closes the lower grille opening at highway speeds to cut through the air more smoothly and reopens at lower speeds where more airflow is needed to keep the radiators cool. Chevrolet has also fitted the 2016 Volt with a new lower air dam that reduces under-car turbulence and resistance at speed. By tucking the dam deep beneath the front bumper, Chevy was also able to retain the Volt's approach angle, so you won't scrape the chin when entering a steep driveway.

The Volt is a tricky car to evaluate because its efficiency can vary tremendously between two different drivers with different commuting and charging habits.

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Better performance

The Volt uses a pair of electric motors to put power to its front wheels. The two motors aren't symmetrical in operation and serve slightly different functions -- sometimes only one is active and at other times they work in concert. The motors are smaller than before, saving another 100 pounds of weight, and use fewer rare-earth metals in their construction than before. Total system horsepower is stated at 149 ponies, but the number that you should be most impressed by is the peak 294 pound-feet of torque.

On the road, Volt feels lighter, because it is, but the flexible electric torque makes the whole car feel more lively than before. Off the line acceleration and passing power are more than adequate for an eco-car of this size. Zero to 30 mph happens in just 2.6 seconds and a sprint to 60 mph takes a respectable 8.4 seconds.

The Volt also benefits from improved handling. The center of mass is nice and low, which makes the car at least feel like it's staying flat when cornering. The sedan's steering feel and responsiveness have been greatly improved over the the old, numb rack.

The 2016 Volt is actually pretty fun to drive. No one's going to argue that it's a sports car, but the sedan does feel more comfortable in its own skin and within its enlarged performance envelope. My biggest takeaway is that the car feels more confident on a twisty bit of road and does a much better job communicating what it can and can't do to the driver. In other words, it'll still understeer when pushed, but it can be pushed just a bit faster round a bend before that happens.

Interestingly, I not only saw improved backroad performance, but I also saw some of my best EV efficiency of the day on the moderately twisty bits of my drive. This is, however, mostly due to the fact that I was able to stick fairly closely and consistently to the Volt's 50 mph sweet spot. Going much faster than that causes the EV's range to suffer.

I expected the efficiency boost, but the improvement to the Volt's performance took me by surprise.

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Better tech, improved design

Inside and out, the angular Volt moves to a more conventional design that Chevy says is "less geeky and more cool."

The new exterior design could be described both as more bland and more modern, and either term would be accurate, in my opinion. Still, it's not an unattractive car. The first-generation Volt's design DNA can still be seen in bits like the black trim where the A-pillar meets the front fender, the short rear deck with a very vertical tail, in the general silhouette of the sedan and elsewhere.

The cabin sees the biggest improvements, with the previous model's glossy plastic dashboard and weird capacitive non-buttons being replaced with a more conventional setup and switchgear. The 8-inch digital instrument cluster has a tighter design and organizes its displayed information more cohesively. The 8-inch MyLink infotainment display gets the latest generation of Chevrolet's tech, which is also quite good. I am a bit annoyed by the current trend of displays that stick up from the dashboard like tacked-on tablets; the Volt's glossy screen seemed particularly prone to reflecting sunlight into my face.

The Volt is a high-tech car and is available with an appropriate level of optional driver aid tech to make its drivers go "Gee whiz!" For example, the 2016 Volt is available a semi-automatic parallel and perpendicular parking that will, with the touch of a button, scan for open parking spaces with sonar while you drive slowly down a road. When a space is found, the Volt will then take over the electric power steering, guiding the car into the open space while the driver maintains control over acceleration and braking. Also available are lane-keeping assist, which can intervene with steering to keep the Volt from unintentionally drifting out of its lane at highway speeds, and a forward collision warning with automatic braking.

The new Volt is available with an optional Qi wireless charging slot that juices compatible phones without cables.

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One of my favorite features is the optional Qi wireless charging dock that can be found in the center console. I could simply slid my compatible phone (in this case, a Nexus 5) into the toaster-like slot and it would charge without fumbling with cables. The 5-inch Nexus 5 fits almost perfectly, which raises concerns in the back of my mind about about how future phones will fit given the current trend of larger and larger handsets every year.

I do have a few nits to pick with the 2016 Volt. For starters, one of Chevy's bulletpoint improvements for the new model is that it now seats five passengers, up from last year's four. There's now a seat belt position in the middle of the second row, but because the center tunnel (which houses the battery) is still so pronounced, there's no leg room in front of that new seatbelt. So unless you're putting a small child in that spot -- which, to be fair, you may be -- the Volt still only holds four adults.

One of the previous Volt's design characteristics was a very flat rear end with a split rear window. That carries over to the new model, but the lower window has been replaced with an opaque black plastic panel. Rear visibility is reduced versus last year, though a standard rear camera somewhat makes up for it.

The Volt's glossy dashboard has been replaced with a more conventional setup with physical switchgear.

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And although the Volt now boasts LED low beams and daytime running lights, it still uses incandescent bulbs for its turn signals, high beams, brake lights and other auxiliary lights. I'm sure Chevrolet did some sort of cost-benefit analysis and figured that the old bulbs were good enough, but it seems to me that going full LED on one of its most technologically advanced cars would be a small touch that would make a big curbside impression.

The range is better, the performance has been honed and its appeal broadened. The 2016 Chevrolet Volt is better in almost every way than the previous generation, but the core of its formula hasn't changed. Like its predecessor, some will love how it fits into their lives, but some just won't get it. Neither group will be wrong, because for better or worse the Volt is a tricky car that you can't really judge absolutely without first asking a lot of questions about your personal driving and charging habits, and your expectations. It's complicated.

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