Revolution Two: The 2016 Chevy Volt Proves There Are Second Acts in Automotive Lives
Somewhere I read that when Henry Ford was in a terrible mood, he looked like he’d been struck by lightning. Burnt, smoldering-looking—about what I looked like as I finally blew my rivets and threw down my iPhone. Our carefully planned, 12-hour window to test the new 2016 Volt had become the friggin’ Hindenburg landing.
Chevrolet had dropped the Volt off early in the morning, along with its patient handler, Victor, who would whisk it away at sunset. Intentionally, it arrived with a wisp of gas left so our guys at Emissions Analytics could pour in the special Chevron test fuel we always use for our Real MPG measurements. Quite honestly, these are the only meaningful mileage numbers outside of the EPA’s. And besides the upcoming Prius, perhaps no car’s mileage numbers are more anticipated than this Volt’s.
Testing extended-range EVs is tricky, though. It’d be a risk spending several of our precious hours on this. But could the Volt match—or maybe beat—the EPA’s announced 42 combined mpg in a scientifically analyzed, real-world environment? Or travel Chevrolet’s claimed 53 miles in EV mode? Too tantalizing. We threw the dice.
On went the equipment, and in went the fuel. The Volt was tapped into Hybrid mode. Steady-footed Jesus Flores headed off to conduct the 88-mile test loop as Sam Boyle readied to download the data files the second Jesus returned. A few weeks earlier I’d driven the car from San Jose to Monterey and back along with several other journalists, and I actually got the worst EV range of anybody there—and that was still 49 miles. Yes, driving like a nut. Some got upward of 57.
But even 49 is a big leap to me. In 2011 I’d meandered across the country in our long-term first-gen Volt and then drove it to work and back for a year, so I got to know its range and mileage pretty well. Like clockwork its engine would start just as I’d ghost into MT’s garage to recharge after 38.5 miles. (Officially, it did 35 on electricity.) And that was before the original 16-kW-hr battery was bumped up to 16.5 (officially 38 EV miles), then to 17.1 kW-hr last year. The 14 percent jump from the present Volt’s 37 combined mpg and its 39 percent boost in EV range are roundhouse knockouts in an arena that regularly cage fights for crummy little 1 or 2 percents.
As Sam and Jesus ran the mileage numbers, the road test team settled into our routine at the sweltering Auto Club Speedway, collecting performance numbers for the three others cars on the day’s agenda. After completing the test loop in Hybrid mode, the plan was for Jesus to switch to EV mode and then head our way, measuring the Volt’s range as he went. We figured he’d arrive at about 3 p.m. to recharge at a level 2 NRG charger behind the Ontario Mills Mall. Meanwhile we’d eat a late lunch. Watch the clock. Wait for a call.
Three p.m. Three-thirty. Four.
Traffic was holding him up. When the call came it was from the track, 10 minutes away. “No, no, meet us here,” I explained. “There aren’t chargers at the Speedway.” Miscommunication. My fault. More wasted time. When the Volt pulled up, both Jesus and Victor climbed out. More weight than I expected in the car.
“So do you guys have any preliminary mileage numbers?” I asked Jesus.
“Sam says it looks like 37.”
“No, that’s combined,” Jesus answered. I blinked.
“How about range?”
“We got 36 miles.” Silence. “What the hell is going on?” I stammered. Hmmm, Jesus’ route—my suggestion—involved a big elevation climb from seaside El Segundo. But moot points; it’ll have to be retested at a later date to get to the bottom of this. OMG. Four p.m. and we’ve got nothing to show for it.
“OK, OK,” I composed myself. “You brought the authorization cards for logging on to the NRG charger, right?” I’d forgotten these in our long-term Kia Soul EV and called our office twice to be sure they came along with the Volt.
“What cards?” Jesus looked nervous. Nobody’d told him.
“You don’t have the cards? You don’t have the cards! How am I supposed to charge this car to test it without those cards!” It was oppressively hot. My eyes were bloodshot from sunblock sweating into them. I said something I regret, and the phone flew.
It gets worse. We caravanned over to the charging station to find a trio of Level 3 (high-power DC plugs)—which are useless for the Volt. And only one Level 2 charger, which it can use. But that was plugged into a Volt—some owner’s current first-gen Volt. Inside the cavernous mall, its blissfully air-conditioned owner was probably debating between Levi’s 512s and 524s. “Hmm, maybe I’ll try both. Oh gosh, there’s a line for the dressing rooms. I’ll go get an ice cream and come back later. Hah! There’s no hurry today!” There’s no hurry.
Why didn’t I check my PlugShare app to know all this? I am an idiot. Nearby, a locked orange Fiat 500e was sitting with its charge port flap open, the international sign of a desperately depleted EV; he’s waiting on the old Volt, too, and being a 100 percent BEV, it emphatically needs that plug.
I stared at the old Volt. Sitting next to our 2016, it looked like a chunky electronics project box I’d buy at Fry’s Electronics. By comparison, the new one appears to have been poured through a fine-mesh nerd filter, both more conventional-looking—in a generic/beautiful way—but slinkier and sexier, too. And sure, I see the Honda influence in its stern—frankly, the whole car might be the world’s all-time best-looking Civic.
Leaving the car charging with Victor, road test editor Chris Walton and I headed back to the track to set up the scales to save time. At the gate, the guard bluntly warned, “We’re locking up at 8 p.m. You have to be out by then.”
“Ah, yes, of course,” I nodded, grimly smiling, pretending I knew this while drooping my head as I drove away—no, no, tell me he didn’t say he was locking the gate at 8 p.m.! Chris and I worked backward from that 8 p.m. lock click. We could get the test numbers done in about 35 minutes if we flew through everything absolutely perfectly. That means the car has to roll onto the scales at 7:25. We have to leave the charger at 7:15 at the latest.
Back at the ChargePoint station, Victor points out that the orange Fiat 500e was now parked next to the Volt, its charge port again open. I’m feeling terrible about this guy, as I know he knows that a Volt doesn’t actually need to be charged. While waiting for the battery’s state-of-charge graphic to slowly rise, I climb around the interior. The seats are torso-wrapping, the twin 8-inch displays are brightly high-res, the center-stack controls are easier to use, and my first brush with Apple CarPlay was a thumbs-up (though during the press drive, I’d directed the car’s nav to the hotel while simultaneously routing the CarPlay map to a coffee shop. We all became befuddled as the screen showed the map to one destination while the voice gave directions to the other). In back, I folded myself into the new, temporary middle-seat perch that requires straddling the battery but expands the car into five-seater territory (though there’s no center headrest). Even a kid would complain about this spot, but it’s a check in the box next to the words “conceivably, I could.”
It’s 7:15. The battery’s half-charged. Nuts—that’s as good as it’ll get. I call ChargePoint one more time, quickly blurt my rehearsed story, and then plug the receptacle into the Fiat’s socket. Have a nice day. We drive the Volt to the track in Battery Save mode to preserve its precious 50 percent state of charge.
It rolls straight up onto the scales: 3,543 pounds. That’s a whopping 224 less than the last Volt we tested and there are various reasons why, highlighted by the new, bigger engine’s aluminum (not iron) block, lighter battery pack, and the now cableless integration of the power control unit. It’s slightly less nose-heavy, too, with a 60/40 front/rear weight balance. Chris disappears to the dragstrip and returns with a mild smile; 7.1 seconds to 60. A stomping 1.4 seconds quicker than the last one.
While eating dessert at the lunch that concluded our two-day press drive to Monterey, I asked the Volt’s engineers if they could think of any powertrain in world that’s more complex than this one. They looked at each other and offered a collection of twisted faces but could think of exactly … none. Although it’s easy to describe Volt 1 and Volt 2’s drivetrains with the same vocabulary—four-cylinder engine, two electric motors, planetary gears—World Wars I and II could be described with the same words, too.
How are they different? Volt 2’s gas engine is all-new and bigger—1.5 liters (from 1.4), aluminum, direct-injection, widely variable cam timing, has more hp (101 vs 84), and now runs on regular fuel. The two electric motors are slightly closer in power (one’s still stronger, 117 hp to 64) but their combined power is less. Less? Less is more when they can be locked together in so many myriad ways via two (instead of one) planetary gear sets and a trio of clutches (one, a dog-clutch). Now, the two motors can combine their grunt off the line, other times negotiate which better handles the chores, one can be a generator, and sometimes both can slumber while the engine directly locks into an efficient one-gear ratio relationship with the wheels.
Drivetrain weight drops by 130 pounds by jettisoning those thick orange cables and making things more compact. Being smarter. Those smaller motors save weight and cost. (The added price of the secondary planetary unit is negligible—GM pops these out like Campbell’s makes soup cans.) The smaller motor is now a simple, cheaper ferrite type, while the costly rare-earth that remain in the other one is more efficiently concentrated (altogether, they’re reduced by 63 percent). Upstream, the LG Chem battery’s architecture is fundamentally the same (a “T” shape running down the center tunnel and splintering beneath the back seats), but its chemistry is lab-latest, there’s fewer packs (192 from 288), and the whole thing’s lighter by 30 pounds and squats slightly lower. The sum of all the incremental advances ramps the car’s combined EV and gas range to a diesel-like 420 miles; Chevy says that typical owners will now do 90 percent of their trips without the engine evening starting.
We rearrange the test equipment and I set off to run the figure-eight test. As I silkily accelerate, I slowly sense something interrupting my mind’s distraction with the day’s problems. Who? What? I brake for the first turn—hey, these brakes feel terrific for a hybrid, vastly better than the soupy pedal that mars the current car. Turning into the corner, the nose quickly bites and the Volt swiftly repositions into a driftable cornering stance. I’m not tired anymore.
Suddenly, our circus of screwups evaporates. Somebody turns on the happy light. My red-hued world becomes a serene blue, and the sky’s hard, mean desert clouds become white, smiling emoticons. I smile back.
“Um, golly, this is a really fun.” I dip in and out of the throttle, ginning and rotating the cornering car exactly so. The steering effort is slightly heavy—I like that. I squeeze the Regen on Demand paddles behind the steering wheel to whoa-down the car with my fingers. Cool. The car moves as a coherent whole, balanced, responsive, reminding me of how suited a properly integrated electric drivetrain is for serious driving (see every story written about Tesla for more information). The original Volt had some real strengths—finger-snap torque off the line being the best. But it heaved heavily over road undulations, and its engine sometimes went into a panicked, roaring regen frenzy when the battery got too low. This one has no vices. I’d forgotten from our press drive along Pacific Coast Highway how nimble it is. How its sense of battery weight now feels more like solid, road-quieting ride motions. Never did the new, bigger engine sweat and scream to redline to recharge the battery—it’s too smart to let itself get painted into an awkward operational corner like that. Although the Volt’s 120-foot emergency stopping distance is so-so, the vastly better brake feel is great for briefly scrubbing speed. I look at the clock. One more lap. Hah! Long day. Gotta do one more lap. With the guard pacing, we hand the keys to Victor and he drives away. Chris and I shake our heads and smile. What a GD day.
When the first Volt burst on the scene, there almost wasn’t any alternative propulsion scene to step onto. Its stunning new technology had the spotlight to itself—including ours, whose intensity brightened to the point that it ultimately won our 2011 Car of the Year trophy.
Five years later, the spotlight can’t keep up with all the actors entering this once-quiet stage. The BMW i3 over here; the Toyota Mirai hydrogen fuel cell car, over there; the Model S, master of ceremonies. Meanwhile, Chevy’s own 200-mile range Bolt EV (which will use much of this Volt’s hardware) and Telsa’s Model 3 are fidgeting in the wings. (And I’ll be fascinated to read a competent analysis by the likes of Argonne or Oak Ridge National Labs, comparing the Volt’s overall CO2 numbers to the Mirai’s).
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s infamous “There are no second acts in American life” is an easy-reach curse to apply here, but my guess is if he were to drive the new Volt, he’d revert to a version of his original words: “I once thought that there were no second acts in American lives, but there was certainly to be a second act to the Chevy Volt’s boom days.”
This isn’t just another Volt, a second one, a slightly better one, a $1200 USD cheaper one (as low as $24,995 USD in California after incentives). Or one to kinda ignore because we’ve been there, done that, and the i3 and Mirai seem more, au current.
This Volt is a whole new deal, as revolutionary anything else out there. Try it again.
|2016 Chevrolet Volt|
|DRIVETRAIN LAYOUT||Front-engine, FWD|
|ENGINE TYPE||Atkinson-cycle I-4, alum block/head, plus 2 AC electric motors|
|VALVETRAIN||OHV, 4 valves/cyl|
|DISPLACEMENT||90.9 cu in/1,490cc|
|POWER (SAE NET)||101 (gas)/149 (elec)/149 (comb) hp|
|TORQUE (SAE NET)||103 (gas)/294 (elec)/294 (comb) lb-ft|
|REDLINE||(gas) 5,600 rpm|
|WEIGHT TO POWER||23.8 lb/hp|
|TRANSMISSION||cont variable auto|
|SUSPENSION, FRONT; REAR||Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; torsion beam, coil springs|
|TURNS LOCK TO LOCK||3.0|
|BRAKES, F; R||10.9-in vented disc; 10.4-in disc, ABS|
|WHEELS||7.0 x 17-in, cast aluminum|
|TIRES||215/50R17 91H Michelin Energy Saver A/S M+S|
|TRACK, F/R||60.6/61.8 in|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT||180.4 x 71.2 x 56.4 in|
|TURNING CIRCLE||36.4 ft|
|CURB WEIGHT||3,543 lb|
|WEIGHT DIST, F/R||60/40%|
|HEADROOM, F/R||37.8/35.8 in|
|LEGROOM, F/R||42.1/34.7 in|
|SHOULDER ROOM, F/R||56.5/53.2 in|
|CARGO VOLUME||10.6 cu ft|
|ACCELERATION TO MPH|
|PASSING, 45-65 MPH||4.2|
|QUARTER MILE||15.6 sec @ 85.7 mph|
|BRAKING, 60-0 MPH||120 ft|
|LATERAL ACCELERATION||0.82 g (avg)|
|MT FIGURE EIGHT||27.4 sec @ 0.63 g (avg)|
|PRICE AS TESTED||$33,995|
|AIRBAGS||Dual front, front side, f/r curtain, driver knee|
|BASIC WARRANTY||3 yrs/36,000 miles|
|POWERTRAIN WARRANTY||5 yrs/60,000 miles (hybrid components, 8 yrs/100,000 miles)|
|ROADSIDE ASSISTANCE||5 yrs/60,000 miles|
|FUEL CAPACITY||8.9 gal|
|BATTERY CAPACITY||18.4 kW-hr|
|EV RANGE||53 miles|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB ECON||(gas) 43/42/42 mpg, (elect comb) 106 mpge|
|ENERGY CONS, COMB||(gas) 80 kW-hrs/100 miles|
|CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB||(gas) 0.46 lb/mile|
|RECOMMENDED FUEL||Unleaded regular|