First it was the Chevrolet Cavalier from the 1980’s, now 20+ years later came the Chevrolet Cobalt. I know that the Cobalt will be discontinued after this year, but that does not mean that I have nothing good or bad to say about this car. After the Cavalier’s 20-year run from its debut in the 1980s, Chevrolet had made it clear that it will be replaced by something a bit more…retro, shall we say? Well, from the first moment I looked at that car, I thought to myself, “Hmm, this would be a great first car for me. Know what? Turns out I was right, and I was wrong at the same time. Why was I right? I currently have a Honda Civic, so I am used to driving more compact cars, but let’s just say that my Civic does not have as many amenities as the Cobalt.
First off, the Cobalt’s powertrain warranty (the bumper-to-bumper is still the same at 3yr/36k like my car) is higher than my car (5-year/100k vs. 5-year/60k miles), and the engine displacement is bumped up to 2.2 liters with 155 horsepower rather than my 1.8-liter 140 horsepower. Second, The Cobalt’s rear legroom is a bit more than my Civic, but not that much, though. Unlike my Civic which has just a split-folding bench seat, the Cobalt has a standard 60/40 split rear seat on all trim levels. Like what I have stated on one of my other articles on automotive technology, Chevrolet is part of General Motors, so OnStar is standard for the first year, which gives turn-by-turn directions and voice-activated concierge service as well as emergency roadside by the push of a button.
Chevrolet has added the MyLink Package particularly for the Cobalt which includes hands-free Bluetooth and a USB port for your iPod or iPhone. If you want to get the Bluetooth as a stand-alone item, then you will have to step up to the 1LT or 2LT trim. Of course, Chevrolet’s MyLink might not be as user-friendly as Ford’s SYNC system to some drivers, but I think we’re seeing some major competition between these two Michigan-based automobile companies. The only criticism that I have for the MyLink is the placement of the USB port. If you have a one-foot USB cord for your iPod, and the USB port is placed right on the radio instead of in the center console or the like, you will not have a descent place to put your iPod or iPhone, and the gear lever will be caught tangled by the USB cord.
No car in history has been developed so openly in the public eye as the forthcoming 2011 Chevrolet Volt. All other cars are designed and engineered behind tightly locked doors, with styling and mechanical details kept under wraps like those alien flying saucers held up in Area 51. Occasionally camouflaged test vehicles will be snapped by spy photographers in Death Valley, but otherwise, an all-new or completely redesigned car will remain concealed until shortly before going on sale. Not the Chevy Volt.
From the original concept car’s unveil in January 2007 to today, the Volt’s progress has been diligently reported by a GM desperate for positive news, and followed by not only automotive enthusiasts, but the world at large. Rarely has a car that isn’t even sold yet enjoyed such instant name recognition. Now, after years of engineering testing and development, the 2011 Chevy Volt is just around the corner in its production form and we’ve finally gotten a chance to drive it.
Though there are still real-world tests to be conducted and further questions to be answered — cost, range and gas mileage being the 300-pound gorillas in the room — our view of the Volt is starting to come into focus. Below you’ll find our initial impressions as well as the basics about what the Volt is and what makes it so different. You’ve certainly heard about the Volt. Now it’s time to find out the story behind the hoopla.
The 2010 Chevy Volt is not an electric car in the traditional sense. It is not a hybrid in the traditional sense, either. Instead, the Volt is an entirely new type of automotive creature — technically known as a “series plug-in hybrid.” It behaves like an electric vehicle with 150 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of torque until its lithium-ion battery pack is depleted, at which point a small 1.4-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine acts as a generator. That engine never directly drives the wheels, as in a conventional hybrid like the Toyota Prius, and it can only recharge the battery in very limited quantities.
The transition between the Volt’s electric-only and gasoline generator modes is surprisingly unnoticeable. Though the pavement during our test-drive was admittedly quite poor and caused louder-than-usual road noise, it was difficult to tell when the gasoline engine was on. Not only is it rather quiet under normal driving, but there’s no telltale shudder like in a Honda Insight, for instance. Only under aggressive acceleration in Sport mode (which adds about 30 hp to the electric motor) or when coming to a stop is the Volt’s gasoline engine perceptibly noisy. And even then, turn on the radio and air-conditioning and you’ll be hard-pressed to tell something out of the ordinary is happening.
However, should your commute home and back stay within the Volt’s estimated low-speed cruising range of 40 miles, the gasoline engine would only ever come on once every few months — to maintain itself and the fuel system. In that scenario, though, you’d have to plug the Volt into a household 120-volt (estimated 8-hour recharge from drained) or 240-volt circuit (3 hours) every night.
What will its fuel economy be? GM was quick to advertise an estimated mileage number of 230 mpg, but that figure is highly suspect. Because of the Volt’s dual nature and ability to run solely on electricity, you could theoretically achieve infinite miles per gallon by driving 230 miles over the course of a week, but recharging in your garage every night. However, if you travel 230 miles in one go on a road trip, you would achieve an estimated 38.3 mpg because the gasoline engine would be running almost constantly for 191 miles. Furthermore, the electric-only range depends on driving conditions such as traffic, grades and your driving style. “Your mileage may vary” has never been more true.
So how did GM get its number? Well, it is what’s called an mpg equivalency. Should you drive the Volt in a very prescribed manner, it would achieve the equivalent of 230 mpg based on the actual gasoline burned as well as the energy produced by the power grid and consumed by the car. It’s more of a mathematical equation than a real testing number. The important thing is that the Volt will use substantially less petroleum than a similarly sized vehicle under typical driving conditions. Its highway range is estimated to be 340 miles, though its gas tank size has yet to be finalized.
Beyond the powertrain, the Volt again seems pretty darn normal. The ride is a bit firmer than in a Prius, and its electric power steering is linear and well-weighted. This is in contrast to that of other Chevy vehicles (the Equinox, for instance), which tend to be numb in feel and overly light in effort. While we wouldn’t call the Volt fun to drive, it seems like one of the more involving among alternative-fuel and hybrid cars.
The Chevy Volt is roughly the same size as a Toyota Prius, but its cabin seems smaller. There are also only four seats, as the spot normally reserved for a rear middle passenger is taken up by cupholders and a bin placed atop part of the T-shaped battery pack. There is unfortunately no center armrest. This obviously makes it less versatile than a traditional sedan or the Prius. Head- and legroom up front are generous, while the rear seat is acceptable. There’s about the same amount of headroom as in a Prius, though occupants’ heads will be positioned under the hatch’s glass. When the sun is behind the car, they will get hot, and there are no rear-seat air vents to cool them down.
The Chevy Volt has a decidedly futuristic-looking cabin, but thankfully, its usability doesn’t suffer for it. Its center stack controls for the stereo, climate control and other systems are touch-sensitive, but their layout is similar to that of the pleasantly functional new Equinox. Similar to that in the Cadillac CTS, an actual touchscreen houses radio presets and more in-depth functions, while displaying all pertinent information and the back-up camera.
The gauges take a bit more getting used to, as they aren’t gauges, so to speak. An LCD screen shows all the usual information (speed, gear selection, turn signals, warning lights), plus a graphic that encourages energy-efficient driving. A battery life meter is displayed while in electric mode, but once the battery is depleted, that meter is replaced by a gas gauge. In general, this setup could be construed as a little busy and distracting, but on our initial test-drive, at least, the LCD didn’t seem to be adversely affected by sunlight.
As for cargo space, the Volt features 10.6 cubic feet under its hatchback. This is much less than the Prius offers and even a bit less than the similarly sized Honda Civic sedan. But since it’s a hatchback, carrying around bulky items should be relatively easy.
Design/Fit and Finish
Forget that sleek, coupelike vehicle that was originally introduced to the world as the Chevy Volt. Reality has dictated that it needs to be a more traditional, practical shape for aerodynamic reasons and to accommodate people and their stuff. The resulting sedan is still handsome and arguably has more flair than the similarly shaped Prius and Insight.
The interior is noteworthy for its unique trim options. Our test car featured an iPod-like white center stack and steering wheel trim, while the front doors were adorned with 3D graphics. There will be different trim and graphics available. As this was a pre-production vehicle, it was impossible to determine what sort of materials quality and construction will be in the final version.
Who Should Consider This Vehicle
The 2011 Chevy Volt is an intriguing vehicle that could radically change cars and the way we drive, but there is still a lot to learn about its range, gas mileage, final interior quality and price tag before we give it our full endorsement.