2013 Chevrolet Volt: Slick, practical, fuel-stingy engineering marvel

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The electric-gas 2013 Chevrolet Volt’s electric-only operating range has been extended three miles to an EPA-estimated 38 miles, depending on terrain, driving techniques and temperature.

Many drivers can’t control terrain or temperature, but driving techniques must be altered, which may not be easy for many Volt owners. No, they’re “not in Kansas anymore.”

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Total Volt range with the help of a small range-extending 84-horsepower gas engine is an estimated 382 miles under good conditions. The twin-overhead-camshaft engine calls for premium fuel and has a 9.3-gallon tank capacity.

The Volt’s propulsion system combines pure electric drive and the sophisticated gas engine. Its long-life battery consists of a lithium-ion battery pack that supplies energy to an electric drive unit to propel the car. The battery is covered by an eight-year/100,000-mile warranty.

When battery energy is depleted, the Volt seamlessly transitions to extended-range mode. Power is inverted from the gas engine to the electric drive unit to provide up to 344 extra miles of range.

2013 Chevrolet Volt
2013 Chevrolet Volt

The Volt has rapid in-town acceleration for fast moves in traffic and quick 65-75 mph passing. Chevy seems conservative with its acceleration figures. It says top speed is 100 mph. I don’t know about that, but my test Volt was still pulling strong at 80 mph.

Battery cars require a charge, and the Volt is no exception. Charging it can be done with a 120V conventional household electrical outlet or a dedicated 240V charging station. Chevy says the Volt is completely rechargeable in about four hours using a 240V outlet and 10 to 16 hours in a 120V outlet—depending on charging level and outside temperature.

Owners can be almost strangers to gas stations if they drive in a normal manner, mainly in urban areas where electric cars shine—and if they have easy access to a plug-in charging outlet.

I first drove a production Volt at a Chevrolet media preview in Michigan in late 2010, shortly before the car went on sale as a promising 2011 model. It has a slick fuel-saving aerodynamic design with merely a .38 drag coefficient, but also an extremely low, easily scraped front air dam.

Few outside the media gave the car a second glance when driven on public roads during the preview, but Chevy says that’s the way it wants it.

“We don’t want the Volt to stand out as a distinct ‘electric car,’ ” a Chevy spokesman said. It’s designed for use as a conventional car. And it’s a Chevy—not a Cadillac despite the price—because we make cars for a large audience and want the Volt to be available to as many folks as possible.”

I can see the logic, but only 23,461 Volts were sold in 2012—although that’s up from a dismal 7,671 units in 2011. In contrast, Chevy sold 237,758 economical compact Cruze gas-engine models in 2012.

Volt rivals include the Honda Civic Hybrid, Honda Insight, Nissan Leaf and Toyota Prius.

Volt sales have been disappointing, partly because it costs $39,145. Even a $7,500 federal tax break still means the Volt is costly for a front-drive, four-door compact hatchback with a rear console that limits seating to four adults.

New for the 2013 Volt are such items as a Hold drive mode (in addition to Normal, Sport and Mountain drive modes) to allow one to conserve battery charge for use in the most efficient manner. Also, a low-emissions package makes the Volt eligible for single-occupancy HOV-lane access in California and New York—one reason the car is especially popular in California.

The Volt is well-equipped, with items including supportive front bucket seats, automatic climate control, keyless access and ignition, cruise control, split rear seatbacks, a color-touch AM/FM stereo with CD player and MP3 playback, with a 7-inch diagonal color touch-screen display, tilt/telescopic wheel, heated power mirrors with integrated turn signal indicators and 17-inch wheels.

Visibility through rear windows is poor, so I recommend the optional Safety Package that contains a rear vision camera and rear park assist. My test car didn’t have it, or the Safety Package, which includes front-park assist, forward collision alert and lane-departure warning.

The quiet interior looks fairly upscale and has two 7-inch high-resolution full-color screens. One is a reconfigurable graphic cluster display with a digital speedometer and the other in the center dash area has a touch-screen display, touch-control switches and a hefty integrated shifter. Power rear windows lower all the way.

New for audio fans is an available audio system with GPS-based navigation, AM/FM/Sirius XM stereo with CD player and MP3 playback capability, navigation and USB port, 7-inch diagonal touch-screen display and Radio Data System.

The $1,395 Premium Trim package in my test Volt included leather seat coverings and heated front seats, besides an easily gripped leather-wrapped steering wheel. And you can spruce up the outside with $595 polished aluminum wheels. The car’s $495 Crystal Red Tintcoat also made it look especially sharp.

Thick windshield posts occasionally hinder visibility. A large front console contains cupholders and a covered storage area but consumes a little too much space. The rear center console allows room for only two adults, and a tall one behind the driver makes a passenger behind him feel a bit confined. Rear door openings are rather narrow. A rear center armrest contains dual cupholders.

The steering is quick, but needs more road feel, although handling is good—helped by a stability control/traction system. A low center of gravity with a wide track and fairly long wheelbase also help provide the rather heavy 3,781-pound car with good handling.

Changing to “Sport” mode provides more responsive acceleration than Normal mode, but can reduce efficiency. I found Normal mode to be fine virtually all the time.

The ride is supple, although some bumps can be moderately felt. The brake pedal has a firm feel, and an electro-hydraulic regenerative anti-lock brake system captures energy for transfer back to the battery.

The large cargo area has a wide, but high opening. Rear seatbacks flip forward and sit flat to increase cargo room. The hatch has a large interior indented area to help close it.

While the hatch opens on struts, the insulated hood is held up with an old-fashioned prop rod.

General Motors is selling a European version of the Volt. Called the Opel Ampera, it has  much wilder styling than the American model. One can only guess how the Volt would do here with the Ampera’s sexier looks.

Pros: Drives like a regular car. Smooth. Quick. Good handling. Nice ride. Few gas stops.

Cons: Battery plug-in needed. Room for only four. High cargo opening. Costly.

Bottom Line: Advanced piece of engineering.

Dan Jedlicka, an automotive journalist for nearly 45 years, is publisher of the new and vintage car review site, www.danjedlicka.com.

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