2012 Chevrolet Volt Driving Impressions

In broad terms, anyone who drives less than 20 or 30 miles per day will almost never have to put gasoline in the Chevrolet Volt. An owner who can plug in and charge at work is good for a 20-30 mile commute in each direction, no gasoline consumed. Yet if that owner plans to take an extended road trip, or just forgot to plug the Volt in the night before, there's nothing to worry about, as there would be in a Nissan Leaf or Ford's forthcoming Focus Electric. If the Volt's battery is too depleted to move the car, its gasoline engine starts and powers a generator, which in turn creates electricity to power the electric drive motor.

There are slight qualifiers, to be sure, but the scenario above describes the strength, and perhaps the beauty, of the Volt. That and the fact that, while it always runs on electricity, driving the Volt is no different than driving a conventional compact or mid-size sedan. We found it more pleasant to drive than many.

Besides the fact that you can plug the Volt in, there is nothing weird about it. There are good-selling, conventional gasoline-powered cars that aren't as energetic or enjoyable as the Volt. Its pedal-to-the-floor acceleration is surprisingly satisfying, from a stop or from a rolling start, particularly in short bursts. It will hit 60 mph from a stop in a tick under nine seconds, and it wasn't that long ago that this level of acceleration was a benchmark for quick.

Put another way, the Volt is hardly a bore. Its steering is quite good: relatively quick, accurate and nicely weighted. The electro-hydraulic regenerative brake system captures energy to help recharge the battery every time you step on the brakes. We found the brakes work extremely well crawling through traffic or hauling the Volt down from highway speeds.

The Volt is also quite comfortable, but certainly not floaty and offers good transient response. The placement of its battery pack creates a lower center of gravity than that in most sedans, and the Volt is equipped with premium chassis features such as hydraulic suspension bushings. The suspension minimizes harshness and absorbs big bumps and potholes with ease, yet the ride stays taut and smooth The Volt keeps a nice, even keel, even in repeated, sharp, side-to-side maneuvers. Its hard eco tires, designed to minimize rolling resistance, are a bit noisier than some, but they provide more than enough grip for most drivers.

The Volt's safety package is more elaborate and complex than that in the typical compact sedan. Part of the complexity comes from special cooling circuits for the batteries. Most of the safety systems, such as airbags and the rest are tied into the power electronics so that they shut down after a severe impact, rollover or flood. In our opinion, concerns over the safety of the Volt's batteries are unwarranted, despite recent reports of a couple of battery fires days or weeks after government crash tests. Battery safety would not figure into our buying decision.

Like some of the more familiar hybrids, the Volt is always trying to help its driver achieve better battery performance, better overall efficiency and better fuel mileage through various graphics in the instrument panel. There's a tutorial on how to use these tools, and it's very easy to stay on top of all the information by scrolling through the menus as you drive, trying to keep the battery-stack icon as tall as possible.

Through the first two days of a recent test, we drove the Volt 176 miles, recharging for short periods during some stops (but not fully), and not being particularly conservative with our driving style, except to avoid blasting heat, seat heaters or stereo, or charging portable devices (all notable battery drains). And over those 176 miles, we used 1.7 gallons of gasoline generating electricity when the battery depleted. Translation: 103.5 mpg. The government gas-only mpg ratings of 35 city, 40 highway, are based on the assumption that the Volt is never plugged into an outlet to charge the batteries.

An another occasion, we drove a Volt 50 miles on a single full charge, using Low range on the transmission in afternoon rush-hour traffic, lifting off the accelerator pedal to slow the car between stoplights and regenerating electricity in the process, and using the brake pedal sparingly (the conventional brakes also recapture some energy and help recharge the batteries, but not as much as when the Volt is coasting down). In this mode, the Volt is virtually noiseless. Conversation is easy, and the sound system doesn't have to be cranked up to overcome operating noise. It made for a very pleasant commute from the airport to the hotel.

Eventually, though, the battery will deplete, after 48 miles in the instance above, and then the engine starts itself, noiselessly, and stays quietly in the background even at high throttle settings (the Volt has an electronic noisemaker that makes it more obvious to pedestrians when the engine isn't running).

We found Chevy's estimate of eight to 10 hours for a full battery charge, from depletion, to be accurate. But that's with the portable charge cord that comes with the car, on standard 120-volt household current. We'd guess that many owners will ante-up for the optional 240-volt charger (the price of the unit and installation vary, depending on utility provider and location). Chevy says the 240-volt charger reduces charge time to four hours. You're going to want one of those.

One of our stints in the Volt came late fall in the Midwest, with changeable but generally colder temps, and we noticed that there is a temperature parameter in how the car calculates range on a full charge. The most mileage the range predictor showed was 35 miles, on mornings when the temperature was above 40 degrees. On other occasions, with the temperature below freezing, it showed as little as 30 miles of predicted range.

The upshot? Volt's battery range is somewhat dependent on ambient conditions, and the colder the temperature the shorter the range. We can't predict what kind of range might be available starting on a bone-chilling, sub-zero morning in Minneapolis. Yet here again, we see the beauty of the Volt. Because it can generate its own electricity, and isn't dependent on the plug-in charge, its ultimate battery range is almost never an issue.

There are a couple of odd things we noted at the wheel of the Volt, and the first one might be a gripe: The gear selector is a bit too sticky. Coasting in Low range is best for capturing energy and generating electricity, so when you lift your foot off the accelerator and slow for a light ahead, you might want to drop the shifter into Low. We found the shifter a bit too reluctant to easily slide down.

The other oddity applies to driving style, and results from the way the Volt generates electricity as it slows down. As noted, the meters at the driver's disposal show that it captures a lot more energy and charges the batteries more when it's coasting, rather than when the driver is hard on the brake pedal. When a light several blocks ahead turns red, you'll probably find yourself coasting as long as possible to recharge, and then getting on the conventional brakes hard in the last 50 or so feet before the stop point.

One problem with the Volt you may have, if you can call it a problem, is that you may not burn much gas in everyday driving. Gasoline goes bad and can degrade within a couple of months. Liquid fuel stabilizers are used by owners of classic cars to handle this, but we haven't checked to see whether they are compatible with the Volt. In any case, the Volt has a system that senses when condensation has gotten into the fuel and tells the driver to go out for a drive to burn some gas.

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