Volt Is EV for Everyone

If EVs are to attract mainstream buyers in the absence of high fuel prices, they will have to be so appealing they do not require buyers to switch political parties or care about climate change. The ’16 Volt comes closest to solving that riddle.

November 23, 2015

6 Min Read
Volt cures range anxiety and is pleasure to drive in all modes
Volt cures range anxiety and is pleasure to drive in all modes.

SAN FRANCISCO – General Motors learned the hard way that even if you build the best electric car on the planet, the world won’t necessarily beat a path to your door.

In 1996, the automaker introduced the EV1, an engineering marvel light years ahead of other EVs being introduced at the time. Its aerodynamic drag coefficient of 0.19 remains an industry benchmark.

Yet, after spending more than $1 billion developing the car, GM leased only 1,100 units over four years, according to WardsAuto data.  

From that disaster, GM learned that if it wanted to sell EVs to a mass audience, it would have to make them more versatile and reduce range anxiety. That led to the introduction of the revolutionary Chevy Volt extended-range EV in 2010.

The car provided 35 miles (56 km) of electric range, enough for most drivers to complete most of their daily commutes under electric power. GM eliminated range anxiety by including a gasoline engine under the hood that generates electricity to power the wheels after the battery is exhausted. You could pretty much drive forever if you didn’t mind 37 mpg (6.4 L/100 km) combined and paying for premium gas.   

GM calls it an EREV. Powertrain textbooks call it a serial hybrid. We call it one of the auto industry’s most disruptive ideas ever.

Unfortunately the car-buying public doesn’t always embrace sublime innovation. Annual Volt sales peaked at 23,461 in 2012 and have been falling since.

The world has not been beating down Chevy dealership doors, but the Volt EREV has attracted an extremely loyal fan base that sings its praises on social media.

So instead of throwing in the towel, GM is doubling down on the ’16 Volt with a top-to-bottom revamp. It is extending its electric range to an EPA-certified 53 miles (85 km), redesigning it inside and out and making it more fun to drive. It also brought the base price down to $33, 995 before the $7,500 federal tax incentive for EVs.

The more-fun-to-drive aspect is noticeable immediately: 0-30 mph (48 km/h) acceleration has been improved 19% and 294 lb. ft. (399 Nm) of torque kicks you in the butt the second you goose the pedal. Plus, 0-60 mph (97 km/h) has been improved 7%. While 0-60 in 8.4 seconds is not Corvette territory, the immediate torque from the two electric motors coupled with a substantial weight reduction definitely puts a smile on your face.

Executive Chief Engineer Pam Fletcher makes it clear the 53-mile electric range is a real-world number and we found this to be true even when driving it hard in the hills around San Francisco. 

More Fun, Power and Efficiency

The entire Voltec powertrain has been reengineered to improve performance, NVH and reduce weight, but components also are designed to amortize their expense over multiple platforms.

All of GM’s six electrified vehicles, from the Volt, Cadillac ELR, Spark EV, Malibu HEV and the upcoming Bolt EV and CT6 PHEV share components. That increases production volumes and reduces cost. GM engineers also designed the Voltec electric motors to use fewer expensive rare earth materials, further reducing cost.

In the ’16 Volt, both electric motors operate together in more driving scenarios during EV and extended-range operation, says Larry Nitz, executive director-GM Global Electrification Team. The ability to use both motors together at the same time helps deliver the increased acceleration. The drive unit also weighs 100 lbs. (45 kg) less than the previous system. 

The new gasoline direct-injection 1.5L engine is slightly larger than the previous 1.4L, substantially more powerful and operates at slower rpms to provide better NVH characteristics. The transition from battery to generator mode is almost impossible to detect without looking at the instrument cluster.  Engine noise in the previous Volt was muffled but noticeable at times it was working hard. This engine is even better muted.  

Perhaps most importantly, it burns regular rather than premium and delivers 42 mpg (5.6 L/100 km) combined fuel economy when the car’s battery reserves are exhausted. Other engine features include a high-compression ratio of 12.5:1, cooled exhaust gas recirculation and a variable displacement oil pump.

The ’16 Volt’s battery pack also has been substantially revised with supplier LG Chem. While electric storage capacity has been increased 20%, the number of individual cells was decreased from 288 to 192 as the result of modified chemistry. The cells now are positioned lower in the pack for an improved center of gravity and the overall mass of the pack is 21 lbs. (9.8 kg) lighter.

Interior Roomier, More Luxurious

The big news inside is there now is a bench seat in the rear so, in a pinch, it can accommodate three people in back, as long as the middle person isn’t very tall. The interior also is quite a bit more luxurious, even in base trim.    

The glossy, hard-plastic center stack with fussy touch controls has been replaced by a console that has more conventional knobs and buttons. Soft, low-gloss materials and sculpted lines flow seamlessly through the instrument panel to the door panels.  Blue ambient lighting creates a soft, high-tech glow. Newly available features include a standard rear-vision camera, heated rear seats and steering wheel and wireless smartphone charging in addition to optional advanced driver assist features.    

Exterior styling is a bit controversial. Some Volt fans complain the new sheetmetal looks too mainstream. Even so, it is aerodynamically efficient with a new active air shutter system to manage airflow up front and it has a tall, tapered rear end.

GM has been slowly rolling out sales in limited markets for the past several months and national sales are expected in Q1 2016.

So far deliveries (mostly first-generation ’15 models) are down almost 30% through October to just 11,299 units, according to WardsAuto data. PHEVs overall are down 29% and Leaf EV sales are down almost 40%.

The few bright spots in the entire electrified marketplace are luxury cars such as the Tesla Model S, up 65% in the U.S. to 19,272 units according to WardsAuto estimates and the BMW i3, up 108% through October with 8,879 sales.

The inconvenient truth about EVs is that if they are ever to attract mainstream buyers in the absence of high fuel prices, they will have to be so appealing they do not require prospective buyers to switch political parties or care about climate change.

That’s a tall order, but the ’16 Volt comes closest to solving that riddle if buyers give it a chance.

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'16 Volt Specifications

Vehicle type

5-door, 5-passenger front-wheel-drive extended-range electric car

Motor

Twin electric motors/1.5L DOHC 4-cyl.

Power (SAE net)

110 kW (149 hp)/101 hp @ 5,600 rpm

Torque

294 lb.-ft. (399 Nm)

Transmission

5 Operating Modes

Wheelbase

106.1 ins. (2,694 mm)

Overall length

180.4 ins. (1,481 mm)

Overall width

71.2 ins. (1,809 mm)

Overall height

56.4 ins. (1,432mm)

Curb weight

3,543 lbs. (1,607 kg)

Base price

$33,995

Fuel economy

42 mpg (5.6 L/100 km) combined, 106 MPGe, 53 miles (85 km) electric range

Competition

Nissan Leaf, Toyota Prius

Pros

Cons

Best of both worlds

EREV tough to explain

Fun to drive

Politically radioactive

Great new interior

Cheap gas limits appeal

 

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