The Chevrolet Volt is a mainstream electric car that’s essentially a rebadged version of the Vauxhall Ampera.
Based on GM’s Delta platform, which also underpins Chevrolet’s Cruze hatchback and the Vauxhall Astra, the Volt is a four-seat hatch powered by lithium ion batteries that can be recharged by plugging into the mains, or on the go by its on-board 1.4-litre petrol engine.
General Motors insists that the Volt is not a hybrid but an ‘extended range electric vehicle’. GM is confident the Volt will be capable of covering up to 40 miles on a single charge but, unlike every other EVs, fluctuations in range don’t really matter because the Volt can fire up its 1.4-litre petrol engine to charge its batteries and ensure there’s always drive to the front-wheels.
The electric motor is rated at 150bhp, and delivers a healthy 273lb ft of torque, or about the same as a 2.0-litre diesel. The most significant point is that the Volt is just like a normal hatchback to drive, with the added benefit of being very quiet. There’s virtually no noise when you press the illuminated start button and you only have to pull the shift lever into ‘D’ mode to make a silent getaway.
The smooth torque of the electric motor does a surprisingly good job of disguising the Volt’s 1715kg kerb weight. Its linear power delivery builds speed very smoothly and is helped by the fact that there are no gearchanges to interrupt progress.
However, the Chevy seems to encourage the driver to flow along gently, rather than to push on. This is mostly thanks to a combination of the steady swell of torque, lack of gear changes, the silence of the drivetrain and the dash graphic counting down the distance to discharge.
On the motorway, the engine/generator actually connects up to the Volt's planetary gearbox, assisting the electric motor to drive the front wheels at speeds above 60mph when necessary - or when ascending very steep hills. The driver can clearly feel the surge of extra power.
Overall, there's real pleasure to be had from driving the Volt. A combination of the electric motor's lightning-quick responses, the fat torque (which is available immediately) and the lack of gearchanges (the transmission uses a single ratio) makes it a very refined place to be for the majority of the time.
To boost performance, there’s a sport button on the dash that increases the flow of current out of the battery by 20 per cent. And the effect is noticeable; if you could turn the turbo on a combustion engine on and off, it would be a bit like this.
It’s a shame that with the petrol engine in action the Volt suddenly becomes a less enjoyable and more strained drive, but this is forgivable given the abundant advantages. Otherwise the steering is nicely weighted, throttle response good and there is none of the dramatic energy-recycling regenerative engine braking that you can experience in some electric cars.
One of the odder aspects of the Volt is that the engine/generator can suddenly start running at high speed, even the when the car is at a standstill. This is just one of the programmed quirks, helping top up the charge in the battery pack.
The Volt’s cabin is a strict four-seater because the battery intrudes in the shape of a large centre tunnel, but the interior is light and airy, with fine views forward and rearwards. The driving position is absolutely first rate: the pedals and wheels are ideally aligned and centred and the seats remarkably comfortable over long journeys. The low dash also allows a fine view forward.
The touch-sensitive centre console controls take some getting used to, mainly because although they make a clicking sound, there's no feedback at your fingertip. Rear seat space isn’t great, with limited head and legroom for taller passengers.
This largely comes from the attention GM has paid to minimising losses from aerodynamic drag. The Volt has a lower roofline compared with the Cruze and to accommodate the battery pack, the rear seats are slightly raised. The rear seats, however, are virtually flat, offering a sizeable load area.
The Volt appears to live up to the hype. It drives smoothly and needs no special techniques to operate it. Even the most novice driver will be able to jump in and drive off. The car's balance (partly thanks to the heavy, low-mounted, battery pack) and impressive steering means the Volt is something of a pleasure to drive when being steered along the typical rural A- and B-roads.
It is notably refined on motorways, too. On the standard 17-inch alloys the Volt can thump over bigger intrusions and fidgets over ridged or eroded surfaces. Overall, though, the Volt was more than acceptable on cratered British urban roads.
Given the Volt’s asking price, you’ll want to give some serious thought to how much you’re saving in running costs by having the electric capacity. Still, that price becomes more justifiable in light of the cost of the more limited pure-electric options, and the 5 per cent benefit-in-kind charge will be of interest to company car users, especially if they can install a bespoke wall charger at their home, and top up on low-tax domestic electricity.
Over a year with the Volt, Autocar found that the battery's range varied between nearly 40 miles (in warm weather on flowing roads) to 22 miles or so in the depths of winter. Long motorway journeys on pure generator power returns around 43mpg: not bad for a heavy car with a relatively low-tech petrol engine.
If the Volt does suit your lifestyle then it’s a no brainer. Ultimately, it makes the electric car viable for the masses.
More than that, it ensures that electric travel need no longer be something taken on as an obligation to the environment – you can actually enjoy the experience, too.