The 2016 Chevy Volt ushers in the second generation of the world’s most popular plug-in hybrid. While the first-generation 2011 Volt was designed to make an initial splash in the market by attracting early adopters, the 2016 edition aims to expand the Volt’s market reach to a broader segment of car buyers.
Changes to the 2016 Volt’s appearance are clearly targeted at appealing more to the mainstream car buyer—not just techie Sierra Club donors. Angular shapes, bold lines and futuristic interior features have been replaced by a wider stance, more curves in the rear, and a simplified dashboard. The changes result in an aesthetic that wouldn’t be out of place in a Japanese carmaker’s showroom, but also speaks the contemporary Chevrolet design language. Critics frequently cite a resemblance to both the Chevy Cruze and Honda Civic.
The swoop of the roofline between the A and C pillars is smoother and more wave-like, terminating in a front fascia that is less angular in profile. The new Volt is perhaps most distinctive when viewed from the front, where its restyled split faux-grille now sits lower to the ground atop active shutters that, anthropomorphized, give the fascia the expression of an open-mouthed sneer.
Inside, the 2016 Volt receives a generous helping of refinement. The chunky, button-laden mash of silver, grey and black plastics that once made up the dashboard and center console are now a slimmed down, contoured and cohesive unit. The biggest criticisms of the old Volt were aimed at its glossy giant center console. It had an overwhelming number of tiny capacitive buttons, with still more choices from the touchscreen. Critics agree that the new system is much easier to use and less prominent in the console.
During pre-launch promotion of the Volt in 2010, Chevrolet went out of its way to underline that the Volt wasn’t a green car built only for those willing to sacrifice performance for sake of the environment. At the time, some clean vehicle enthusiasts even found the Volt’s 35-mile electric range and 35-mpg fuel economy in range-extender mode to be a bit underwhelming. (Doubts about the hatchback’s green credentials would prove to be overblown, as real-world testing would later show that the average Volt travels nearly the same number of annual electric miles as a battery-only LEAF.)
Still, Chevy’s decision to provide a 149-horsepower system to the Volt showed that engineers had been looking towards broader market acceptance from the beginning. The original Volt could travel from 0-60 mph more than a full second faster than a Toyota Prius or Nissan LEAF. Chevy could have sacrificed some of the ample initial torque for the sake of better efficiency but it didn’t, resulting in a balanced vehicle that likely startled a few skeptics the first time they floored the accelerator in their brother-in-law’s new Volt.
For 2016, Chevy chose to focus improvements on range and energy efficiency rather than power. Horsepower remains unchanged, while torque was boosted to 294 pound-feet. The car can now hit 60 mph from a stop a full second faster than ever before, coming in at 7.8 seconds.
The Volt’s powertrain configuration has changed significantly. It now uses its smaller, more efficient 1.5-liter gasoline engine mostly to power the car while it’s operating as a hybrid, rather than to charge its battery. In past Volt models, the engine would only connect to the wheels in the most demanding situations and otherwise be used strictly to charge the battery while the motors did the driving. A new twin planetary gearset—replacing a single—allows for more versatility in how the engine, motors, battery and regenerative brakes can be optimized to meet different driving demands. Maximizing efficiency is the name of the game.
The car’s impressive acceleration highlights another critical distinction between the Volt and any other hybrid using a gas engine. Certainly during its first 53 miles—but even beyond that—there is no clunky switching back forth between gas and electric systems. Step into the accelerator as hard as you like, and you’ll hear not a peep from the engine. The 2016 edition is quieter than ever before thanks to its newly designed more efficient engine.
The Volt’s technical arrangement is called a “series” plug-in hybrid. It’s fundamentally different from a “parallel” hybrid, like the Toyota Prius, in which the car’s computer frequently switches between the engine and a much smaller battery pack.
Technical terminology and marketing lingo aside, the Volt is generally characterized as a plug-in hybrid. As such, it sets the gold standard for plug-in hybrids because no other plug-in hybrid comes close to offering more than 50 miles of efficient all-electric driving before the gas engine comes on.
Chevy engineers put extra focus into creating a more natural regenerative braking feel. Where efficiency demands often cause hybrids and EVs to respond like they’ve just driven into softly packed sand as soon as you remove your foot from the accelerator, the Volt’s disengagement is smoother. For those looking to maximize their regenerative capabilities, Chevy has added a paddle on the back of the steering wheel that manually increases regenerative braking whenever a driver wants it. Hypermilers rejoice.
Handling and suspension were tweaked a few of times in first-generation Volt models, and for the last few years critics have complained about a loosened steering feel. The 2016 edition reverts back to the tighter and engaging handling critics praised in the original model. You will not mistake this car for a German performance coupe, but if you happen to be driving down the California coast on Highway 1 you will be very pleased with your decision to choose the Volt over, say, the lackluster Prius.
The Chevy Volt operates entirely as an electric car for its first 53 or so miles after receiving a full charge. It burns no gasoline during those miles, drawing energy from a smaller, lighter lithium ion battery pack containing 18.4 kilowatt-hours of energy. Current from that pack powers two motors (87-kW and 48-kW) that drive the Volt’s front wheels.
After 53 miles, a 1.4-liter gas-powered engine takes over most of the workload, adding an additional 367 miles of total range when the 8.9-gallon gas tank is full. Owners of earlier models regularly reported going well beyond its official range with careful driving techniques. According to Chevy, Volt drivers average just 42 miles per day of driving, meaning that the vast majority driving days in the 2016 edition are likely to fall well within the car’s 53-mile range. Chevy now offers drivers even more power to extend their electric miles with its new paddle-activated regenerative brake control. Hypermilers had previously used the car’s shifter to rapidly alternate between low-energy and normal driving mode in order to increase benefits of the regenerative braking. Drivers can now use a paddle located behind the steering wheel to decelerate quickly and efficiently where it makes sense, but preserve the car’s limited coasting capability when they prefer it.
Official EPA numbers for the 2016 Volt peg the “miles per gallon equivalent” while driving on electricity at 106 MPGe. When the gas engine comes on board—and the car turns into a regular hybrid—the rating is 43 mpg in the city and 42 mpg on the highway (for a combined average of 42 mpg). The main metric in terms of efficiency, for many drivers, is the length of time between visits to a gas station—which is commonly counted in months. Chevrolet reports that 2016 Volt drivers to average 1,000 miles between fill-ups, up from 900 miles last year.
The idea that EV owners worry about limited driving range—frequently referred to as “range anxiety”—is flipped on its head when it comes to the Chevy Volt. With a total range of 420 miles and the ability to visit the pumps to fill up its 8.9-gallon tank, Volt drivers never really have to worry about running out of range. Instead, the concern—you might even call it a game—is at all costs avoiding using a single drop of gasoline. This has been given the tongue-in-cheek term: “gas anxiety.”
Data collected by the Department of Energy suggests Volt owners plug-in 1.5 times a day compared to 1.1 times a day for the Nissan LEAF, and for good reason. The key to going weeks or months between visits to the gas station is to charge wherever an outlet or charge station is available—whenever you have the opportunity, regardless of whether you expect to use the juice right away or not.
Every Volt comes standard with a portable charge cord that can easily plug into a standard 120v outlet. In this manner, the 18.4-kWh battery pack can fully charge in about 13 hours according to GM. This method, sometimes called “trickle” charging, only adds about three to four miles in an hour. In many cases, a couple of hours of charging via 120v, is the difference between having to use any gasoline, or remaining fully electric all the way to your destination.
Fortunately, the Volt uses the standard J1772 connection found in all U.S.-based home and public EV chargers that supply 240-volt, Level 2 power. This bumps up the number of electric miles you can replenish to 11 to 13 miles in an hour. Charge times are now slightly faster thanks to the Volt’s new 3.6-kW onboard charger, which replaces a 3.3-kW charger in previous models.
One of the most oft-cited drawbacks to the first-gen Volt was that it seated just four passengers thanks to the protrusion of the T-shaped battery back that bisects the car from the base of the center console to the rear seats. The new Volt’s battery pack is now slim enough for Chevy to offer a third seatbelt in back and technically call itself a five-seater. But it still makes sitting in the middle of the car’s rear bench seats a grim outcome for an adult of any size. If you can last a short drive to a local restaurant as the fifth passenger, then more power to you. Practically speaking, the Volt remains a four-seater—though the fifth seat does come in handy for car seats and small children.
The Volt’s four grown-up seats are all supportive and reasonably comfortable for a car of this size, though rear headroom is limited. Leather and heated seats are both available, though power seating is not. A wireless phone charger in the center console is also optional.
The scant 10.6 cubic feet of cargo hatch space behind the rear seats bests most sedans in this class but fails to measure up to other hatchbacks. Storage can be easily expanded by folding down the Volt’s 60/40 split rear seats. The snug interior design and thick roof pillars create a significant visibility problem for some drivers. This has improved somewhat in the 2016 model—and a standard rear camera certainly helps things—but it remains an important consideration. Shoppers are strongly encouraged to study blind spots during a test drive, to make sure visibility is not compromised beyond the limits of your size and comfort level.
The 2016 Volt hasn’t yet received crash test ratings but the previous generation of the car received top marks from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The list of standard safety features on the Volt includes antilock brakes, rearview camera, traction and stability control, side-impact airbags, front knee airbags and full-length sidecurtain airbags. The OnStar telematics system—which includes automatic crash notification, on-demand roadside assistance, remote door unlocking, stolen vehicle assistance and turn-by-turn navigation—is also standard.
Optional features include parallel and perpendicular parking assist, forward collision and lane departure warning systems, and automatic braking.
The 2016 Chevy Volt starts at $33,995, a substantial $1,175 price cut compared to the 2015—putting it within reach of more Americans than ever before. And that’s before taking into account any federal or state incentives. For example, the combined $7,500 federal tax credit and $1,500 rebate for plug-in owners in California drops the effective price of a new 2016 Volt to around $24,995. Lease deals vary from dealer to dealer and the car hasn’t been on the market long enough to get an idea of its base lease price, but the 2015 Volt was available from $249 per month for 39 months this year. The 2016 Volt shouldn’t be too far off.
With the price drop and improved range, the 2016 Chevrolet Volt is a great deal compared to the 2015 model. But in anticipation of having to compete with a whole new generation of the market-leading PHEVs—selling at its lowest price ever—rivals like the Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid and the Ford Focus Energi plug-in have dramatically reduced their prices as well. With further discounts you may soon find a similarly-priced plug-in, but it definitely will not have 53 miles of all-electric range.
The Volt gets bonus points for the sportiness of its drive compared to more sedate plug-in hybrids—that have gas engines that fire up too easily—and smaller pure electric cars, that feel less substantial on the road compared to the Volt.
Competing plug-in hybrid models such as the Prius Plug-in, and Energi versions of the Ford C-Max and Fusion, get between 10 and 20 miles of all-EV range before using gasoline. That’s fine if you really need that fifth seat, a few extra cubic feet of cargo space or luxury features—but it’s hard to imagine that older plug-in hybrid models with significantly less range will merit serious consideration next to the Volt.
At 27 miles, the new 2016 Hyundai Sonata Plug-in’s range is better than most and starts about $600 more than a new Volt. The Sonata Plug-in also boasts a bigger engine and almost 35 percent more horsepower than the Volt and a much larger cargo area but still loses out in torque, range and price.
The brand new 2016 A3 Audi E-Tron may be the most logical competitor. The A3 sports a range of 20 to 30 miles, 203 combined horsepower and a top speed of 138 mph—much faster than the Volt’s 98 mph ceiling. It also brings luxury appeal and a certain sexiness that aren’t present in a domestic more affordable plug-ins aiming to build a mainstream audience. At $33,700 after federal incentives, the A3 starts significantly higher than the Volt, but some luxury buyers could find the design and driving dynamics of the Audi worth the extra cost (even at the expense of all-electric range).
It’s important to remember that comparing the starting price of the Volt to those of other plug-in hybrids is a misleading exercise. Because of its comparably massive battery size, the Volt is eligible for the full $7,500 federal plug-in tax credit. Its competitors with smaller batteries are eligible for incentives that top out at $4,200.
The 2016 Chevy Volt is currently available at dealerships. Unfortunately for consumers in most states, the Volt will only be available at Chevy dealerships in 11 states: California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maryland, Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Vermont.
The good news is that Chevy will be releasing the 2017 model in early spring. The 2017 Volt will be essentially identical to the 2016 and will be available nationwide. It will benefit from the support of sales staffs that already have several years of plug-in vehicle experience under their belts. Electric vehicle buyers have complained for years about undertrained salespeople with little interested in selling plug-ins, but you’re less likely to encounter that at a Chevy dealership.