While all the plug-in talk these days seems to be about Chevy’s new Volt compact hatchback, the car that put General Motors 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 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, various Teslas, and the 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.
At the time of writing, the Bolt hasn’t even been on sale for a full year, 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 Q2 of 2017 the Bolt found 7,592 U.S. customers compared to 7,248 for the Leaf, whereas the Volt walked away with 10,932 sales, making it quite clear that current mainstream branded plug-in customers prefer all the extra range and versatility a partial-gasoline powered model can provide (Tesla’s all-electric Model S luxury sedan found 8,900 buyers over the same six months).
Chevy sold 24,739 Volts in the U.S. throughout 2016, making it the second most popular plug-in, with Tesla’s Model S finding 29,156 premium buyers, the Model X SUV third with 18,028 (although it only went on sale in September of last year), Ford’s C-Max Energi fourth with 15,149 sales, and Nissan’s Leaf fifth with 14,006 deliveries. There were many more plug-ins sold than that, the number being 157,130 according to EV-volumes.com, which is 0.9-percent of total new vehicle sales.
If you’re still trying to figure out if the Volt makes money for GM, consider first that Tesla has yet to earn a dime despite considerable success selling cars that cost much more than Chevy’s compact PHEV, which means they 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 recently 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 15,348 down U.S. roads over the first nine 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.
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 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. Let me be clear, the Prius still outsells the Volt and every other hybrid within the non-plug-in sector, but the Prius Plug-in, now known as Prius Prime, remains far down the popularity list with just 2,474 sales in 2016 and a much better showing so far this year with 15,056 deliveries.
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 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 188,876 units after a particularly poor 12 months, calendar year 2015 much stronger at 226,602 units, 2014 at 273,060, 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 other hand there’s the possibility of zero ongoing fuel costs, the Volt’s approximate 50 miles of pure EV range making it possible for most commuters to get to work and back before they need to recharge. EPA estimates result in 42-mpg city/highway combined when under hybrid power or 106 MPGe when factoring in partial electric use. 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 with its 1.4-liter four and six-speed auto achieves a claimed 33 mpg combined city/highway, while the 1.6-liter diesel is good for an estimated 37 mpg combined).
I, for one, only needed to add $4 in regular unleaded to the Volt’s gas tank during my test week. When I picked it up from GM it showed 58 miles of estimated EV range and 431 miles via the hybrid system. After driving home, which totaled 27 miles, my EV range showed 32 miles 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 5 miles to a local mall, plugged the Volt in at a free fast charger for about an hour, which added 7 miles 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 132 additional miles. 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 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 38 miles, with the battery showing about two-thirds full. Being that I needed to do some shopping I drove a couple of miles to another mall and plugged it in again, bringing my total expected range up to 53 miles.
I kept topping it up because I needed to make a big drive the next day, an event that would take me 26 miles away with no ability to recharge when I arrived. It would also be mostly highway miles, the faster speeds eating up battery life quicker 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 able to drive for 50 minutes on the highway as well as fast-paced arterial routes, with speeds ranging from 40 to 55 mph, leaving the expected range indicator showing 6 miles 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 6 miles via regenerative braking, leaving me with 12 miles of expected range before heading home.
It didn’t take too long on the highway before this 12 miles of expected range was depleted, at which point the 1.4-liter 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 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 50-mph 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 lot more 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 Hatchback, 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 $34,095 in LT trim and escalates to $38,445 in top-line Premier guise (prior to adding options), which would be similar to the $22,325 Cruze Hatchback LT Auto with plenty of options and a nearly loaded $24,350 Premier Auto.
For starters, base Volt LT standard features include auto on/off LED low-beam and halogen-reflector high-beam headlamps, LED taillights, 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 color configurable primary instruments, cruise control, auto climate control, six-speaker audio, satellite radio, dual USB ports, 8.0-inch color touchscreen infotainment with the impressive MyChevrolet interface featuring Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, a reverse camera with guidelines, Bluetooth phone and audio streaming, voice activation, OnStar telematics including guidance and 4G LTE Wi-Fi, 60/40 split-folding rear seatbacks that expand on the 10.6 cubic-foot 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 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 monochromatic multi-info display), auto climate control, 8.0-inch touchscreen infotainment (it’s a 7.0-inch system), voice activation, 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 that adds 17-inch rims, remote start, proximity access and pushbutton ignition, a leather-wrapped steering wheel with heat, and an upgraded Z-link rear suspension for better handling (unavailable with the Volt), while the Cruze Premier also includes an eight-way powered driver’s seat, leather upholstery, heatable front seats, 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 an $850 LT Convenience Package that includes almost everything available with the base Volt LT as well as an eight-way powered driver’s seat and heated front seats, the former not available with the Volt.
The Volt Premier can’t be had with the Cruze’s heatable steering wheel, but it gets the leather seats just noted as well as unique machine-finished 17-inch alloys, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, and a nine-speaker Bose audio with a sub, all features 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 $495 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 $495 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.
Both Driver Confidence packages are available for the Cruze too, albeit priced at $790 thanks to rear parking sensors, not available with the Volt because of its just noted semi-autonomous parking—although parking sensors would be helpful as well. Also, heatable rear outboard seats are available with the Cruze, but not with the Volt.
Additional standalone Volt features include a different set of 17-inch alloys for $1,895, ambient lighting for $595, and navigation for $495, the latter also included in the top-line Cruze. Lastly, the top-line Cruze’s powered moonroof is not available with the Volt.
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 $31,000. The less-equipped Volt, on the other hand, hits the road at $42,520, an $11,520 difference. But wait, there’s more.
Depending where you live there are government handouts and/or tax rebates for going green, the Volt warranting a return of up to $7,500 federally as well. Let’s say you qualify for a maximum rebate, which brings the price down to about $35k. This leaves a smidge over $4k to pay off through fuel savings, which shouldn’t be that hard to recover. My loaner was a base Volt LT, so if you deduct the maximum rebate from its retail window sticker it’ll only set you back about $27k, at which point you still have a very nicely outfitted compact hatchback for about the same $4k or so more than a similarly equipped Cruze Hatchback. As you can see these numbers should make financial sense to most drivers, 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 high-occupancy 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 the nation 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.
Story credits: Trevor Hofmann, American Auto Press Photo credits: Karen Tuggay, American Auto Press Copyright: American Auto Press