While all the plug-in talk these days seems to be about Chevy’s new Bolt compact hatchback, the car that put General Motors
|The Volt’s conservative frontal styling seems to be working for its global customer base; it’s the number one plug-in after all. (Photo: Karen Tuggay, Canadian Auto Press)
on the mobile electric grid has been selling up a storm.
Of course, when I say “selling up a storm” I’m referring to a comparatively small number of plug-in vehicles in the shadow of the vast majority of conventionally powered conveyances, but big change takes time to allow consumer mindsets to adjust, and no one could’ve predicted the current price of crude.
That’s the single largest detractor from a cleaner, greener battery powered world, most naysayers originally believing electric vehicle sales would stall due to range anxiety. The Volt overcame such worries by combining both electric and gasoline internal combustion motive power, similar to a hybrid albeit with full EV capability for limited range, theoretically providing a way for owners to travel back and forth to work, as well as running weekend errands without using any fuel at all. Since the
|A unique rear design appears more sedan-like than hatchback. (Photo: Karen Tuggay, Canadian Auto Press)
Volt’s arrival, and other plug-in hybrids that have followed, improvements in battery storage have made the thought of living with a pure electric vehicle much more plausible, hence the success of the Nissan Leaf and new arrival of Chevy’s much lauded Bolt.
I’m not going to even try to convince you which way to go, but the fact that General Motors now produces the world’s bestselling plug-in electric vehicle as well as a new pure electric car that could quickly supplant the Leaf as the dominant EV is impressive, especially considering all the unwarranted flack it went through back at the turn of the millennia when following through on its preset plan to decommission its experimental EV1 two-seater two-door coupe. It’s now easy to see that the EV1 was part of a longer-term vision, the result being the previous Spark EV that’s just made way for the new Bolt.
|Take off the chromed grille inserts and the Volt looks a lot like the Chevy Cruze that shares its underpinnings. (Photo: Karen Tuggay, Canadian Auto Press)
the time of writing the Bolt has only been on sale for two months in Canada and three in the U.S., so it’s difficult to see how it will measure up against its main rival from Japan. While there appears to be pent-up demand, the ability to deliver as many cars as customers may want is challenging in the first few months so we’ll need to allow some time to judge its sales success. Through January and February 2017 the Bolt found 92 Canadian customers compared to 178 for the Leaf, whereas the Volt walked away with 522 sales, making it quite clear that current plug-in customers prefer all the extra range and versatility a partial-gasoline powered model can provide.
Chevy sold 3,469 Volts in Canada throughout 2016, making it by far the most popular plug-in here, with Tesla’s Model S finding 1,466 premium buyers, the Leaf third with 1,375, and Tesla’s Model X SUV fourth with 1,032 sales, although it only went on sale in June of last year.
|Standard LED low beams make for superb night visibility. (Photo: Karen Tuggay, Canadian Auto Press)
were many more plug-ins sold than that, the number being 11,060 according to FleetCarma.com, but of the nearly 40 different models available last year the Volt ran away with more than a third of all the business, selling more than its two closest competitors combined, the three frontrunners amassing more than twice as much action as all remaining PHEVs and BEVs combined. That’s great news for Chevy, but it’s difficult to imagine how much money its competitors are losing in a market that has yet to even achieve one-percent penetration overall (plug-ins actually shot up to 0.57 percent of total auto sales, after a banner year).
In the U.S., incidentally, the Volt’s numbers weren’t as good per capita at 24,739 units within a population that’s roughly 10 times our size, while the Tesla Model S outsold it by more than 4,400 units. If you’re still trying to figure out if the Volt makes money for GM, consider first that Tesla
|Nice detailing give the Volt a sporty look. (Photo: Karen Tuggay, Canadian Auto Press)
has yet to earn a dime despite considerable success selling cars that cost much more than Chevy’s compact PHEV and therefore should have more individual profit. We therefore have a probable cause for loss with the Volt. Then again, along with the Volt’s strong sales (for a plug-in), many of its components including its platform architecture are pulled from GM’s vast parts bin (it shares underpinnings with the Chevy Cruze and other D2XX flexible platform-based vehicles, whereas the old model rode on GM’s Delta II compact platform), so its reduced component costs and ability to be produced next to conventional models give it the best chance of being profitable (Tesla’s future, on the other hand, is still highly speculative).
As you may have heard, the Volt lost one market in Europe when the Opel/Vauxhall Ampera fraternal twins were cancelled at the end of 2014, and moments
|Standard 17-inch five-spoke alloys help deliver great handling without compromising ride quality. (Photo: Karen Tuggay, Canadian Auto Press)
ago gained another, the new Buick Velite 5 (Volt clone) announced for China (I’d say they came out ahead on this one). On top of this, GM just sold its entire European operations to PSA (Peugeot/Citroën) and therefore its hot-selling new Ampera-E (Bolt) won’t likely continue to be available across the Atlantic, and while the General unloads a money-losing division it will no longer be able to offset its plug-in costs on the Continent (they should set up an experimental online ordering division for Chevy electrics or make them available through a European division of Maven, their car share program that works similarly to Daimler’s Car2Go – there’s a Volt on Maven’s home page).
Unlike Smart cars that initially made up Car2Go’s fleet, Chevy is having no problem selling its Volt as noted. After initially delivering 326 in December of 2010, its first month on offer, 7,671 Volts moved off U.S. Chevy lots in 2011, 23,461 in 2012, and so on (after a considerable dip due to a model changeover) until last year’s record 24,739 unit sales. With
|An integrated rear spoiler improves aerodynamics. (Photo: Karen Tuggay, Canadian Auto Press)
3,431 down U.S. roads over the first two months of 2017 they appear to be on a path to similar sales for 2017. That’s impressive considering the price of gas in most markets, although West Coasters haven’t experienced as much difference at the pump.
Here in Canada, sales started off in September of 2011 and therefore only rose to 275 units that year, but 2012 saw 1,225 buyers and following years were mostly on an upward trajectory until last year’s record 3,469 units. So far this year GM Canada has sold 522 Volts, which also puts it on target for a similarly strong 2017.
Globally the Volt/Ampera family (it’s also available in Australia through the Holden brand) has amassed 134,500 sales since inception, which as already mentioned makes
|Unique teardrop-shaped LED taillights set the Volt apart from the Cruze and others in Chevy’s lineup. (Photo: Karen Tuggay, Canadian Auto Press)
it the world’s all-time bestselling plug-in hybrid. A total of 113,489 have been sold within the U.S. up to December 31, 2016, and 8,884 in Canada over the same period. That leaves slightly more than 12,000 Volts sold into other world markets. Interestingly, the Netherlands is the GM plug-in’s strongest European micro-economy, with almost 5,000 Amperas and more than 1,000 Volts registered.
A success? Again, these numbers would have caused the cancellation of any conventionally powered car long ago, but being that automakers are willing to take long-term losses in order to gain a foothold in what they believe are important new markets, the Volt is hailed as a winner. Profitability or not, GM should be lauded for the Volt’s market success, as it’s tough to beat the Prius at its own game. No, the Prius still outsells the Volt and every
|The Volt’s cabin is nicer than many similar sized compacts. (Photo: Karen Tuggay, Canadian Auto Press)
other hybrid within the non-plug-in sector, but the Prius Plug-in, now known as Prius Prime, remains runner-up in popularity.
Put the two side-by-side and most will probably gravitate to the more conservatively styled option. Yes, Chevy was smart to make its Volt blend in more than even the first-generation model, this new one making no bones about its Cruze familial ties. While the Cruze compact sedan carries a number of unique styling details, if you were to fill its grille and lower fascia vent in with the Volt’s aerodynamics enhancing chromed inserts, modified its headlights and fog lamp bezels, added the Volt’s unique A-pillar garnish, tacked a tall hatch onto its backside, and then slapped on a pair of the PHEV’s teardrop-shaped taillights you’d have a Volt clone. The old Volt appeared more of a departure from the first-gen
|The driver-centric cockpit feels quite sporty for a PHEV. (Photo: Karen Tuggay, Canadian Auto Press)
Cruze, giving the electric model more dedicated-PHEV allure. Still, the Volt is an attractive five-door that smartly looks more like a sedan than most hatchbacks, although I happen to prefer the looks of Chevy’s new Cruze Hatchback, which is slightly more constrained.
Styling has little to do with the Cruze’ much higher sales numbers, however, with the conventionally powered model selling 26,824 units after a particularly poor 12 months, calendar year 2015 much stronger at 31,958 units, 2014 at 34,421, and so on. Chevy isn’t alone with a decline in car sales, the popularity of SUVs making a considerable impact, yet my point was about most peoples’ preference for a regular gasoline-powered car.
It comes down to finances, the lower initial cost of a Cruze making it more affordable from onset, compounded by the ongoing costs of the higher priced Volt’s financing charges if you choose to buy yours on credit (which most consumers do). On the
|The standard 8.0-inch configurable gauge cluster is brilliantly colourful and fully featured. (Photo: Karen Tuggay, Canadian Auto Press)
other hand there’s the possibility of zero ongoing fuel costs, the Volt’s approximate 85 kilometers of pure EV range making it possible for most commuters to get to work and back before they need to recharge. Chevy still wasn’t showing any five-cycle fuel economy estimates on its retail site at the time of writing, but fortunately the U.S. EPA has done its tests allowing us to derive estimates via conversion, the results being 42 mpg city/highway combined when under hybrid power or 106 MPGe when factoring in partial electric use, which converts to 5.6 L/100km and 2.2 Le/100km combined respectively (Canadian five-cycle ratings are usually less optimistic). Either way that’s outrageously good fuel economy, and depending on how you drive, you might even be able to make up for the added costs of purchase (for comparison’s sake the Cruze LT achieves 8.1 L/100 km in the city and 6.2 on the highway, whereas the Cruze Premier is good for a claimed 8.4 and 6.4 respectively).
|The centre stack is filled with standard tech while its switchgear quality is excellent. (Photo: Karen Tuggay, Canadian Auto Press)
for one, only needed to add $6 in regular unleaded to the Volt’s gas tank during my test week. When I picked it up from GM it showed 93 km of estimated EV range and 694 km via the hybrid system. After driving home, which totaled 43 km, my EV range showed 51 km (which made it nearly spot on accurate) despite using mild A/C, and later a bit of heat (climate control sapping battery life), plus the heated seats. The next day I drove 8.5 km to a local mall, plugged the Volt in at a free fast charger for about an hour, which added 11 km of estimated range, and then drove the same distance home, leaving my estimated range exactly where I started; not bad.
The next couple of days were quite busy due to functions around the city, which caused me to rack up 212 additional km. In order to eliminate the need for fossil fuels I took opportunity to plug in whenever I could, but eventually the battery was depleted enough that it seamlessly and almost
|GM has come a long way with its infotainment systems, and this MyChevrolet system is superb. (Photo: Karen Tuggay, Canadian Auto Press)
unnoticeably switched to hybrid drive. While most buyers would recharge the Volt overnight at home via household socket or an installed fast charger, I don’t have the ability in my apartment so I decided to enjoy a cheap cup of coffee and free Wi-Fi while writing at Ikea, leaving the car to recharge for free in their parking lot. Two hours and 53 minutes later it displayed an estimated range of 62 km, with the battery showing about two-thirds full. Being that I needed to do some shopping I drove two km to a mall and plugged it in again, bringing my total expected range up to 85 km.
I kept topping it up because I needed to make a big drive the next day, an event that would take me 42 km away with no ability to recharge when I arrived. It would also be mostly highway miles, the faster speeds eating up battery life quicker
|My base tester featured a compass where the navigation would normally go, the latter available in top-line Premier trim. (Photo: Karen Tuggay, Canadian Auto Press)
than city limits. This is where the Volt really impressed. Full disclosure, I drove normally, which means I hovered just over the speed limit in order to maintain traffic flow, while driving away from stoplights no differently than if operating a conventionally-powered car like the aforementioned Cruze. In other words, I didn’t change my driving style one iota, other than lifting off the throttle to recharge the battery kinetically when coasting downhill and sometimes even applying a “paddle shifter” behind the left steering wheel spoke, which is actually more akin to a hand brake.
Use this and you almost never need to lift your foot onto the brake pedal, while it recharges the battery at a much higher rate than merely coasting. When slowing on a flat surface you can modulate it to almost come completely to a stop. Keeping pace with traffic and using regenerative braking as often as possible (it becomes second nature after a while), I was
|The leather-wrapped shift knob gets a cool blue top. (Photo: Karen Tuggay, Canadian Auto Press)
able to drive for 50 minutes on the highway as well as fast-paced arterial routes, with speeds ranging from 60 km/h to 90 km/h, leaving the expected range indicator showing 10 km when arriving at my destination, even after a very steep uphill climb towards the end of my journey. On the way back down that hill I was able to add another 10 km via regenerative braking, leaving me with 20 km of expected range before heading home.
It didn’t take too long on the highway before this 20 km of expected range was depleted, at which point the 1.4-litre four-cylinder range extender kicked in and I was in hybrid mode. The engine drones in a strange way, although there’s no difference in performance. And yes, the Volt is quick off the line and fun to drive, allowing considerable joy behind the wheel when you get the urge, but that’s really not the purpose of this car or any plug-in.
Still, GM might want to look into synthesizing a more masculine engine sound and piping it through the audio system like BMW
|The LT’s fabric seat upholstery is attractive, the seats are inherently comfortable despite limited adjustability, and front heaters are standard. (Photo: Karen Tuggay, Canadian Auto Press)
does with its i8 and M cars, and believe it or not Ford does with its Mustang. After all, a car that drives as well as the Volt shouldn’t sound like a sewing machine. I love it when it’s in absolutely silent EV mode, the Volt being the best plug-in hybrid I’ve driven yet and fully deserving of its popularity. In comparison, its highway range made a recent drive in a Ford Fusion Energi immediately forgettable, that car’s completely full battery depleted after a mere seven minutes of steady 80-km/h travel. BMW’s i3 REx delivers even more range than the Volt, is probably the better driver’s car, and is certainly more premium in execution, although you’ll pay a $9k premium in base trim and considerably more when adding on features, while its outward appearance is more polarizing than the Volt.
Rather than compare this Chevy to a BMW, it makes more sense to compare it to a Cruze, which is roughly the same size and finished to about the same level of refinement and quality, while available with similar features. The Volt starts at $38,590 in LT trim and escalates to $42,690 in top-line
|Rear seat room is good, although there’s only room for four due to a fixed centre console. (Photo: Karen Tuggay, Canadian Auto Press)
Premier guise, which would be similar to the $22,245 Cruze Hatchback LT Auto with plenty of options and a nearly loaded $24,845 Premier Auto.
For starters, base Volt LT standard features include auto on/off LED low-beam and halogen-reflector high-beam headlamps, LED taillights, heatable power-adjustable side mirrors, 17-inch five-spoke alloys on 215/50 all-seasons, keyless proximity-sensing access, pushbutton ignition, remote start, an electromechanical parking brake, a leather-wrapped multifunction steering wheel, 8.0-inch colour configurable primary instruments, cruise control, auto climate control, heatable front seats, six-speaker audio, satellite radio, dual USB ports, 8.0-inch colour touchscreen infotainment with the impressive MyChevrolet interface, a reverse camera with guidelines, OnStar telematics including guidance, 60/40 split-folding rear seatbacks that expand a 300-litre cargo area when needed, 10 airbags including rear side-impact thorax protection and front knee protection, tire pressure monitoring, a teen driving mode, four-wheel
|Yes, it’s a hatchback and a roomy one to boot. (Photo: Karen Tuggay, Canadian Auto Press)
disc brakes plus the usual electronic driving safety aids, and an especially useful Drive mode selector that allows Normal, Sport, Mountain and Hold settings (the latter replenishing the battery).
In comparison the Cruze LT Auto includes all of the same features except for the LED low beams, 17-inch alloys (they’re 16s instead), keyless proximity-sensing access, pushbutton ignition, remote start, electromechanical parking brake (it’s foot operated), auto HVAC (it’s manual), leather-wrapped steering wheel (it’s polyurethane), configurable instruments (they’re analog with a smaller multi-info display), auto climate control, colour touchscreen infotainment, and Drive mode selector, which means that the base Volt gets a lot more standard equipment.
A fairer comparison would be the pricier Cruze Premier, which adds 17-inch rims, remote start, a leather-wrapped steering wheel with heat (a heatable steering wheel unavailable with the Volt), and an upgraded
|Chevy offers 300 litres of space behind the 60/40-split seatbacks. (Photo: Karen Tuggay, Canadian Auto Press)
Z-link rear suspension for better handling (also unavailable with the Volt), while the Cruze Premier also includes leather upholstery, this latter item requiring an upgrade to Premier trim with the Volt.
Before I get into the Volt Premier, Cruze LT buyers can opt for a $2,295 LT Technology and Convenience Package that includes almost everything available with the base Volt LT as well as an eight-way powered driver’s seat and powered moonroof, both not available with the Volt. There’s also a $2,890 LT True North Edition package that includes everything just mentioned plus a whole bunch of state-of-the-art active safety gear, but instead of running through these now I’ll get back to them in a moment.
The Volt Premier includes the leather seats just noted as well as unique machine-finished 17-inch alloys, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, nine-speaker Bose audio with a sub, and 4G LTE Wi-Fi, all features
|Fold the seats flat and load it up, the Volt plenty practical. (Photo: Karen Tuggay, Canadian Auto Press)
that would require an upgrade to Cruze Premier, while the Volt Premier also adds semi-autonomous parallel and reverse perpendicular parking (not available with the Cruze), plus the ability to upgrade to two active safety groups, the first being the $575 Driver Confidence Package featuring blindspot monitoring with lane change alert and rear cross-traffic alert, and the second being the Driver Confidence II Package that also costs $575 and builds on the above by adding forward collision alert, low-speed front auto braking, a following distance indicator, lane keeping assist, and auto high beams.
If you want these features in the Cruze you can do so by adding the aforementioned LT True North Edition upgrade, which also includes rear parking sensors, whereas the $3,595 Premier True North Edition upgrade adds heatable rear outboard seats. Additional standalone Volt features include
|Don’t try to fix this one in your garage at home, as the Volt power unit might give you a jolt. (Photo: Karen Tuggay, Canadian Auto Press)
active cruise control for $1,375, navigation for $795, the latter also included in the top-line Cruze.
All in all a mostly loaded Cruze Hatchback (I didn’t add on unique styling and performance features) is fancier than a loaded Volt, although it’s priced at $28,340. The less-equipped Volt, on the other hand, hits Canadian roads at $47,870, a $19,530 difference. But wait, there’s more.
Depending where you live there’s a government handout for going green, the Volt warranting a return of up to $7,500. Let’s say you qualify for a maximum rebate which brings the price down to $40,370. This still leaves a smidge over $12k to pay off through fuel savings, which probably isn’t possible unless you keep it for a dozen or so years. Then again, my loaner was a base
|The Volt offers fair value after applying the maximum government handout, but is that fair to taxpayers? (Photo: Karen Tuggay, Canadian Auto Press)
Volt LT, so if you deduct the maximum rebate from its retail window sticker it’ll only set you back $31,090, at which point you still have a very nicely outfitted compact hatchback for only $4,500 or so more than a similarly equipped Cruze Hatchback. Now that’s a number that makes financial sense, and I haven’t even added in the feel-good benefit of driving a mostly zero-emissions vehicle.
Right about now I could digress into the somewhat uncomfortable political fairness of asking poor John and Jane taxpayer down the street, who can barely afford the insurance on their 10-year-old Chevy Cobalt let alone the gas, to help pay for my $7,500 tax grab. After all, if they could afford a new Volt they’d surely be driving one, or at least a new Cruze Hatchback LT, but instead of reducing their tax burden I’m causing them to pay more so that I can buy something priced similarly to a premium compact (in the range of BMW’s 3 Series, Mercedes’ C-Class, and yes, Cadillac’s ATS) at a massive discount. But who really cares about those schmoes. It’s about the environment, and me feeling better about myself for reducing greenhouse gasses. Yup, it’s wealth redistribution at its best, taken from the working poor and today’s struggling middle-class and then given to those who can afford to pay more, but won’t because it doesn’t make financial sense to pay the real price for all this advanced technology.
I hope you realize I have my tongue firmly stuck in my cheek as I’m saying this, or at least this self-professed libertarian is doing his damned best to hold back how he really feels. I understand the need for government assistance in advancing new technologies, especially when their stiff regulations are forcing manufacturers to build these things in the first place. It’s also important to realize that manufacturers aren’t making money even at the prices charged. The take-rates on EVs and PHEVs, including popular ones like the Volt, are too small for any real profits.
Instead, I like to consider plug-ins in a different light. Rather than consumers’ usual willingness to pay a lot more for increased go-fast performance, why shouldn’t we be willing to pay more for state-of-the-art tech? After all, it’s pretty cool to be able to plug-in your ride, especially when factoring in that all those shopping mall charging stations noted earlier were right next to the front door, and quite often conveniently available when the rest of the lot was full. Living with a plug-in hybrid requires some lifestyle changes if you want to minimize running costs, but there are considerable benefits too. Some jurisdictions even let you travel in HOV lanes without passengers. Now THAT’S performance! You’ll arrive home much faster than the person driving her 400 horsepower super sedan.
If I were buying a new compact and had money to spare I’d seriously consider a Volt, but I’d get it as-tested in base trim. The LT comes nicely stocked with features and is finished well enough inside, plus it has ample room front to back and even a decent amount of storage space. It drives very well, with quick acceleration and impressive handling, while it looks a helluvalot more appealing than a Prius Prime, or at least that’s this journo’s opinion. What’s more, that it’s also possible to never need to pay for fuel again is ultimately appealing to me, while additionally it could comfortably drive you and the fam right across Canada during summer vacation (did that once with mom in the back of a V8-powered ’69 Pontiac Parisienne Coupe, the cost of which would put a family of similar means in the poorhouse today). Few vehicles offer the versatility of a Volt.
Really, the only way Chevy could make the Volt any better is to stick this power unit in its next generation Equinox SUV. Then they’d have an even bigger hit on their hands, and then possibly people in the flyover provinces that don’t get the benefit of government handouts would buy one.
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