Review: 2011 Chevrolet Volt

Up Front

General Motors' (GM) long-anticipated Chevy Volt is a great little car, but it's mainly for shoppers who like to be first with the latest technology, cost be damned. I came away from a weeklong test-drive wanting a Volt—really wanting a Volt, in fact—but knowing that buying one doesn't make financial sense. You get far more bang for the buck from a Toyota (TM) Prius or diesel-powered Volkswagen (VOW:GR) Jetta TDI, or a conventional compact such as the new Honda (HMC) Civic, Chevy Cruze, or Ford (F) Focus.

Federal subsidies are the only thing that makes the Volt, the first mass-market plug-in hybrid, remotely competitive. Starting price is $41,000, reduced to $33,500 by a $7,500 federal tax credit. The all-electric Nissan (NSANY) Leaf starts at $26,130 after the same tax credit. The Toyota Prius and Volkswagen Jetta TDI no longer qualify for federal credits but start at just $22,410 and $23,765, respectively. Bottom line: It would take years to recover the extra cost of the Volt in fuel savings.

That's my head talking. My heart says, "I want one!" Price aside, the Volt is now arguably the vehicle of choice for owners who want to minimize their impact on the environment, and their expenses at the gas pump. To my mind, it's more practical than the Leaf and the new 2012 plug-in Prius hybrid, which is due out this fall. I also love the idea that a world-beating technology is being pioneered at a union plant in beleaguered Hamtramck, Mich.

The Volt is different from other hybrids because it's nearly always powered by its 149-horsepower electric motor; once the charge in the 435-lb. battery is partially depleted, a 1.4-liter, 84-hp gasoline engine with an attached generator begins delivering juice to the car. The gas engine only directly provides power at high speed.

The Volt can go an average of 35 miles per charge, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates. That gives it an edge over the plug-in Prius, which only has a range of about 13 miles per charge. The Leaf's range is up to 100 miles, but once the battery is depleted your only option is to recharge; in the Volt you can drive an additional 344 miles on the gasoline engine and still average 37 mpg. In contrast to the Leaf, the Volt could easily be used as your only car, for vacations as well as commuting.

The EPA estimates that the Volt gets the equivalent of 93 mpg when operating on electricity alone, at a cost of about 4 cents per mile. Some owners report getting more than 1,000 miles per 9.3-gallon tank of premium gas (premium is required in the Volt).

The Volt's standard equipment includes a charger that allows you to recharge the battery in about 10 hours using a conventional 110-volt outlet at a cost of about $1. Alternatively, you can invest in a 220/240-volt station that will charge the battery in about four hours. The charger station costs $490, plus $500 to $1,500 for installation, a General Motors spokesman says, but a federal tax break cuts the cost by 50 percent. In some cities, the Energy Dept. will pick up the entire cost (for now, at least).

The Volt doesn't yet have government crash-test ratings, but—like the Leaf—it has been named a Top Safety Pick by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Stability control and front, front-side, and head-protecting side curtain air bags are standard.

GM hopes to sell 10,000 Volts in the U.S. this year and 45,000 in 2012. Plans also call for exporting the car to Europe and Asia.

Behind the Wheel

The Volt feels like a peppy compact car, with handling almost as good as that of the Lexus CT 200h and more quickness. The Volt accelerates from zero to 60 mph in a little under 9 seconds, compared with 9.8 seconds for the Prius and the CT 200h. Top speed is 100 mph. There's even a "sport" mode that makes the car feel a bit more responsive.

Standard features include power accessories, a hard-drive-based navigation/sound system, five years of OnStar service, a USB port, and Bluetooth. Add $1,395 for heated, leather-trimmed seats and $695 for a rearview camera and parking assist. To save weight, the seats are manual rather than power-adjustable.

The cabin is attractive and surprisingly roomy, with plenty of legroom for four average-size adults in both the front and rear bucket seats. The battery runs down the middle of the car under a hump between the seats. The rear seats fold down to create a flat hauling space.

Nice as it is, the Volt has some quirks. One is that the battery charge goes down in cold weather. I test-drove the Volt in late winter, so I was recharging it overnight in temperatures that regularly dropped below freezing. The first two nights, I got a 27-mile maximum charge, dropping to 25 miles the third night when the temperature plunged.

However, I quickly discovered that I could go a lot farther per charge than the number on the dash indicated. That's because the Volt estimates mileage per charge based partly on your driving style. For instance, one day I charged up my test car to 24 miles in about six hours, then drove 24 miles and arrived back home with 6 miles of power remaining. The reason: I drove moderately and didn't use the heater or defroster.

Another evening, I drove hard and fast at first, and the estimated charge dropped from 26 to 16 miles in just five miles. I eased way off and the rating didn't budge over the next seven miles as the car's computer adjusted. I arrived at my destination, 12 miles from my house, still showing a 16-mile charge.

I derive two lessons from this. First, the Volt's fuel economy will rise as you get to know the car. Second, average mileage may be affected by your circumstances. If you live in a warm area, or have a heated garage, you'll probably get better than the 35-mile charge the EPA figures on. Under ideal circumstances, a single charge can propel the Volt 51 miles, GM says, and some owners have gone even farther.

Buy It or Bag It?

J.D. Power & Associates says the Volt has been selling for an average of $43,347, which means dealers haven't been gouging early adopters for a big premium. However, the Volt is still very pricey: The 2011 Jetta TDI sells for an average of $24,424, the 2011 Prius for $25,586, and the Leaf for $33,690, J.D. Power figures. (The plug-in Prius is expected to cost $3,000 to $5,000 more than the regular model.)

The main reason the Volt costs so much is its lithium ion battery. The GM spokesman puts the battery's cost "in the ballpark of $10,000," but J.D. Power's Mike Omotoso estimates that it's actually upwards of $15,000. The Volt's production cost will come down as use of lithium ion batteries rises, but there's no guarantee the savings will be passed on to consumers because GM is probably losing money on the Volt, as Toyota initially did on the Prius.

At the current price, the ideal purchaser of a Volt is an anal-retentive Southerner with a 100-mile daily commute whose employer offers free charge-ups during the workday. With gas at $4 per gallon, you could reduce your fuel cost from $8 per day in a Prius to around $1. However, it would still take you a decade to recover the extra money you paid for the Volt if gas prices remain constant. Even if the price of gas doubled tomorrow, it would take five years, and you'd get your money back much quicker in the less expensive Nissan Leaf.

That's my head talking, again. My heart is still saying: I want a Volt!

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