2011 Chevrolet Volt Review

2011 Chevrolet Volt - Surprisingly normal, Volt delivers on it's promise and then some.


Vehicle Tested
2011 Chevrolet Volt
Base Price: $40,280

At-Tested Price: $41,000
Built in Michigan.



Engine: 111-kW electric motor
Transmission: Automatic
Drive Wheels: Front-Wheel Drive

The featured attraction of the Bow-Tie display at the 2011 Chicago Auto Show, the Chevrolet Volt might be the most hyped new car since the reveal of the original Ford Mustang at the 1964 World Fair. Like the Mustang, Volt is a new breed of car. Not for its styling or design, but for its drivetrain.

Instead of a gasoline or hybrid powertrain turning the wheels, Volt uses an 111 kW electric motor. The motor is powered by a 16 kWh lithium-ion battery pack. Chevrolet claims that the battery can power for Volt for up to 50 miles when starting with a full charge. Once the charge in the battery drops below a set threshold, a 1.4-liter gasoline engine automatically turns on and spins a generator to provide power to the battery and electric motor that powers the wheels. The gasoline engine does not re-charge the battery, it only maintains the charge and provides up to 350 miles of additional range.

Volt can be plugged into a common 120-volt household outlet with the included 20-foot charging cord. The battery can also be charged from a 240-volt outlet with an optional cord. The charge process can be controlled from within the car or by using a smart phone application (currently Android or iOS only). A complete charge will take from eight to ten hours with 120-volt connection or three to four hours with 240-volt set up.

Currently Volt is only offered as a four-seat hatchback. It's similar in size to the new Chevrolet Cruze and comparable to the Honda Civic Hybrid or Toyota Prius. It's not as large midsize hybrids like the Ford Fusion, Hyundai Sonata or Kia Optima.

Available in a single model, the Volt retails for $40,280 with an additional $720 destination charge. The Volt is eligible for a $7500 federal tax credit and may qualify for an Illinois tax credit of up to $4000 when it goes on sale here in the fall of 2011.

Standard safety features include antilock four-wheel disc brakes with brake assist, stability control, pedestrian alert, tire-pressure monitor, daytime running lights and dual-front, front-side, curtain-side and front-knee airbags. Front- and rear-obstacle detection system and rear-view camera are optional.

Standard equipment includes air conditioning with automatic climate control, navigation system with voice recognition and real-time traffic information, OnStar assistance system, tilt-telescope steering wheel with radio controls, cruise control, cloth upholstery, height-adjustable front bucket seats, center console, split-folding rear seatbacks, heated power mirrors with integrated turn signals, power windows, power door locks, keyless entry, keyless access and starting, Bose AM/FM/CD/MP3 player with auxiliary and USB ports, satellite radio, music hard drive, Bluetooth cell-phone link, trip computer, variable-intermittent wipers, universal garage door opener, automatic day/night rearview mirror, compass, illuminated visor mirrors, remote starting, cargo cover, rear defogger, automatic headlights, floormats, theft-deterrent system, rear spoiler, 215/55R17 tires and alloy wheels.

Options include leather-wrapped steering wheel, leather upholstery, heated seats, car cover, premium paint and unique alloy wheels.

Get Up and Go  Despite its unique drivetrain, Volt can be driven by anyone with a valid driver's license without any knowledge of how the vehicle works or any special training. Get in, push the start button, shift into drive and step on the gas pedal--oops, I mean accelerator. It's that easy. Makes no difference if the battery is charged or not, as long as there's gas in the tank, the Volt will accelerate away with no fuss, just like a regular car.
Getting the Best Economy - Volt might not be right for you

Not only is it important to understand how the Volt works to get the best fuel economy, but you should also understand the technology behind this unique vehicle to be sure it's a good fit for your needs before you buy. Volt can operate as a pure electric or in a quasi-hybrid mode and will never leave you stranded on the side of the road when the battery runs down.

The Volt functions most efficiently when owners have the opportunity to plug it in for at least a nightly full charge. It's also most efficient with the climate control off, meaning Volt is best in spring and fall here in Chicagoland and not so efficient in the dead of winter or the heat of summer.

Unlike a pure electric, there's no "range-anxiety." When the charge runs out, the gas engine comes on to provide up to 350 miles of additional range.

Let's take my commute, for example. I drive 25 miles each way to work and have the opportunity to plug in the 120-volt charge cord at each end of the commute. The weather during my week-long test was mild, the thermometer never dropping below 40 degrees or rising above 90 degrees.

During my time with the car I was able to squeeze 45-51 miles out of each battery charge. That meant that during the week, I never needed to use the gas engine. I charged Volt up at night and then topped it off at work. Even when I had to go out at lunch or run errands after work, I was always able to stay fully electric for the daily commute.

On the weekend, I needed to take a couple of road trips and that meant running on the gasoline engine for an extended period of time. In straight highway driving with the A/C on, I was able to average more than 40 mpg. Then when you added in the 45 miles of electric-only range into the trip, I was still averaging more than 60 mpg for the each trip.

As stated in this review, over the course of the week, I was able to average 145.4 mpg over more than 620 miles. That works out to 103 gallons of gasoline over the course of a typical 15,000-mile year. Compare that to the 500 gallons you would have burned in a conventional compact car.

Now, if you don't have the opportunity to plug in at work--or even just during the evenings--or have a commute that's much more than 30 miles each way, Volt might not make as much sense as a typical compact or hybrid. Plus, if you live in a region that's home to extreme hot or cold weather, you will find that Volt's fuel economy will be affected more than a conventional car.

Though limited to a top speed of 100 miles per hour, Volt will accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in about nine seconds. That's class average for a four-cylinder compact car and slightly quicker than a Toyota Prius. However, the 0 to 60 mph time doesn't really tell the true story. Because Volt is powered by an electric motor, power delivery is instantaneous from any speed, which makes Volt "feel" much quicker than most competitors and fun in cut-and-thrust highway traffic.

Like hybrids, Volt has more than one driving mode. Default is NORMAL, which is the most fuel-efficient driving program. Drivers can also select SPORT for more direct throttle response or MOUNTAIN if you are traversing very hilly terrain. The gear selector also offers a low range that can be used in stop-and-go driving. It maximizes electric-motor braking efficiency to provide the greatest regenerative charge to the battery.

If you can plug in a lamp, you can plug in the Volt. Charging is as easy as removing the included charge cord that neatly stores in the hatch area and plugging one end into a wall outlet and another into an access panel located on the driver-side front quarter panel. Once you've connected the cord, Volt chirps the horn to confirm that the charging process has started. You can set the Volt to charge immediately or to delay the charge process to take advantage of lower electricity rates in the evening. You can monitor the charging process via a smartphone app, which also offers the ability to lock and unlock the doors and honk the horn and flash the lights.

As you might imagine, EPA ratings for the Volt are unique. When fully charged, the Volt is rated at 93 mpg equivalent on the EPA city/highway cycle. In gas-only mode the rating drops to 37 mpg. For comparison, the Toyota Prius is rated at 50 mpg combined and the Honda Civic is rated at 29 mpg combined.

Because Volt has the potential to be operated as an electric-only vehicle, it requires premium-grade gasoline. Premium-grade is more stable and degrades less over time--a problem Volt engineers combat by forcing the Volt engine to run from time to time to keep the oil and gas fresh. Premium-grade fuel also contains slightly more energy per gallon than regular-grade and this allows the gasoline engine to provide more power to the generator for a given amount of gasoline.

Your fuel economy with the Volt will depend greatly on where you live, your ability to plug in and your driving style. According to the EPA Web site, Volt owners are currently averaging 104 mpg overall. During my week with the Volt I was able to average 145.4 mpg over more than 620 miles of driving. During the life of this particular vehicle, which includes more than 5000 miles of journalist usage, the average fuel consumption is 60.9 mpg.

On the Road  Other than the nearly silent operation in electric mode, Volt drives just like any other compact car. The ride is confidently composed and the suspension is firmer than expected. That's not to say the Volt is hard riding, quite the opposite, as the shocks and springs provide enough compliance to absorb small bumps and soften large impacts. Overall, the Volt compares better to the firm-riding Volkswagen Jetta than to the softly sprung Hyundai Elantra.

Despite the battery-bloated 3700-pound curb weight, Volt feels quite nimble. There is almost no body lean, brake dive or acceleration squat. The steering, though light at parking speeds has a natural "weight" as velocity picks up and is quite direct. There's no seesawing at highway speeds--a common trait of vehicles with electric steering. The brakes do have a noticeable change in feeling when they shift from regenerative braking to friction braking and that's a bit disconcerting. You quickly become accustomed to the feel though and it's hardly noticeable after a couple of trips.

In electric mode, the Volt is nearly silent around town. There's only a hint of gear whine at low speeds. On the highway, wind and tire noise are only noticeable because there's no engine growling under the hood.

If you are paying attention, you can feel the gas engine kick on when the battery charge drops below a certain level but it's barely noticeable. The engine doesn't groan or moan and is nearly silent when cruising at a steady state of speed. In hard acceleration or when climbing a hill, the pace of the gas engine picks up a little and that's when it is most perceptible.

Behind the Wheel  Though the exterior of the Volt is fairly conventional, the interior design is strikingly modern and flowing. Materials are a cut above the compact class, but not by much. Padded surfaces include the tops of doors, the armrests and the center console--basically anywhere you might rest your arm. Otherwise the material of choice is hard plastic. Though the optional leather upholstery is nice, the base cloth fabric is satisfactorily appealing and seems quite durable.

Drivers face a digital readout for vehicle speed and battery and gas range. It's richly colored and nicely laid out for easy viewing. It's also quite easy to decipher so that you clearly know how much range you have left in battery or gas mode.

The center stack features another digital readout that houses the information for the climate control and audio and navigation systems. It's also attractively done and easy to view, day or night. Controls for vehicle systems are grouped below the screen and are touch sensitive. Though not logically arranged, they are at least clearly marked. One annoyance is that the power button for the radio turns off the display screen. So to operate the screen, you have to at least have the radio on with muted volume.

The front seats are surprisingly comfortable and supportive. There's ample head room and leg room is adequate. Those taller than six-foot might find their knees rubbing the center console or door panel because there's not a lot of width. A height-adjustable seat and tilt-telescope steering wheel make it easy to find a comfortable driving position. Visibility is fine to the front and sides, but the thick rear pillars and split rear window lead to a lot of double checking when backing up or changing lanes. Also, rain can collect on the near-horizontal rear window blurring vision at slow speeds.

Rear seating is limited to just two buckets because of the large central tunnel that houses the battery. Thankfully, Chevrolet was smart enough to utilize the center space to provide a functional console and storage bin. Though the seats are comfortable, six-footers will want a bit more leg and head room. Moving the front seats up a bit helps somewhat, but that's not always an option.

Volt's hatchback design proves to be quite versatile and provides a useful cargo space for the class. Perhaps the biggest issue is loading items over the high tailgate. Rear seats fold flat in a snap, but the center console is not covered and that could lead to smaller items falling down to the floor or larger items scratching the plastic. Interior storage is good with lots of open and covered bins. The map pockets and glove box could be larger, though.

Bottom Line  Surprisingly fun to drive, Volt is packed with technology and fundamentally changes automobile engineering. Perhaps the best feature is the fact that Volt is a completely practical car. Right out of the box it can replace any compact sedan--though the four-passenger capacity does handicap it somewhat.

The Volt blends the functionality of an electric vehicle with the go-anywhere utility of a hybrid. Faults are few and limited to simple changes like relocating the buttons on the center console and adding a little more rear-seat room.

The $40,000 price tag is daunting and makes the premise of buying the Volt to save money on gas dubious at best. However, if you want affordable and efficient transportation, you can get the 40 mpg Chevrolet Cruze or Ford Focus for just a tick over $17,000. Volt isn't intended for those buyers. Much like that first Mustang at the '64 World's Fair heralded a change in buyer's tastes; Volt is a showcase for the future of automotive engineering.

Specifications 2011 Chevrolet Volt
4-door hatchback
Wheelbase, in.
Size, liters/cu. in.
111 kW
Length, in.
Width, in.
Torque (lb.-ft.)368
Height, in.
Weight, lbs.
EPA Estimates, mpg
93 equivalent / 37 gas only
Cargo Capacity, cu. ft.
Fuel Capacity, gals.
Manufacturer's Warranty*
Seating Capacity
3 years / 36,000 miles
Front Head Room, in.
5 years / 100,000 miles
Front Leg Room, in.
6 years / 100,000 miles
Second-Row Head Room, in.
Free Roadside Assistance
5 years / 100,000 miles
Second-Row Leg Room, in.
Free Scheduled Maintenance

*8 years / 100,000 miles on Voltec components, including battery, high voltage wiring, control modules, E-compressor, traction power inverter module (TPIM), accessory power module (APM), and on-board charger.

Mark Bilek

Mark Bilek is the Senior Director of Communications and Technology for the Chicago Auto Trade Association and the General Manager for DriveChicago.com. He is also responsible for developing and maintaining the Chicago Auto Show Web site.

Mark has been reviewing vehicles for more than two decades. Previously, he was associate publisher at Consumer Guide, where he oversaw publication of Consumer Guide Car & Truck Test, Consumer Guide's Used Car Book, and ConsumerGuide.com. He was also responsible for publication of "Collectible Automobile" and various hardcover automotive titles. In 2001 and 2002 he served as president of a Midwest Automotive Media Association. Mark has appeared on NBC TV, ABC TV, Fox News, WGN and MotorTrend TV as an automotive consultant. He hosts the Drive Chicago radio show on WLS 890 AM and was a regular guest on WGN Radio's Steve & Johnnie show. Mark lives in the northwest suburbs with his wife and three sons.