Road test: 2016 Chevrolet Volt [Review]

We drive Chevy\'s overhauled green-car flagship.

While it's easy to get enthusiasts riled up about all sorts of car-related topics, it's rare that a car can galvanize partisans whose knowledge of automobiles may not extend beyond the fact that they exist. The Chevrolet Volt is one such car.

Indeed, the Volt seems to be a car about which just about everybody has an opinion--some more informed than others. GM's controversial hybrid returns leaner and meaner for 2016, and Chevy loaned us one for a week so we could see what all the buzz is about.

What is it?At its core, the Volt is a very sophisticated plug-in hybrid sedan. While Chevy may place it a bit closer to the battery-electric end of the spectrum than some other conventional hybrids (and that argument has some merit), it's hard to escape the mechanical realities of its drive system.

As refreshes go, the 2016 Volt's was more significant than most. Just about everything is new, but let's start with the basics. The Volt's electric-hybrid powertrain has been revamped, reducing weight, improving performance and freeing up passenger space. The T-shaped battery pack has been reduced in size. It's 20 percent more space-efficient and 30lbs lighter than the old pack.

Not only does this help improve the Volt's overall efficiency and lower its center of gravity, but it also made for a significant packaging victory. For the first time, the Volt can claim a conventional 2+3 sedan seating layout rather than the 2+2 configuration of the original.

The two-motor electric drive system was overhauled as well. It's 100lbs lighter and 12 percent more efficient. As a bonus, one of the motors has been stripped of all rare-earth metals.

What does all of this mean? In short, the 2016 Volt weighs less, accelerates quicker, goes farther and holds more, and all in a very real-world way. Projected electric-only range is up to 53 miles per the EPA (from between 35 and 38 on older models) and total range (factoring in the gasoline engine) is up to 420 miles from ~380. All of these improvements show on the window sticker. The new Volt is rated at 106 MPGe and 42 MPG combined, up from 94 and 37 in the final iteration of the first-generation car, respectively.

And, as an added bonus, when you do need the range extender, it'll run just fine on regular unleaded. No more premium required. The new Volt is also roughly a half-second quicker to 60 miles per hour; GM claims it'll now do the deed in just 8.4 seconds--not brisk, but not dangerously slow, either.

If there's any downside to the powertrain enhancements, it seems to be in the charging department. All else being equal, more capacity means longer wait times. On 120V service, we saw a full charge in a little over 12 hours. A dedicated 240V charging station should cut that time by more than half.

The chassis also got an overhaul, but not one so thorough. GM claims improved ride and handling over the outgoing model, but the fundamental front strut/rear torsion beam setup remains.

What's it up against?Since the Volt's original debut, quite a few manufacturers have introduced plug-in hybrid cars. While Chevrolet has long emphasized the not-quite-a-hybrid, not-quite-an-EV space which it occupies, the fundamental mechanics of the Volt's operation make it more a plug-in hybrid than, say, the BMW i3 with its optional range-extender.

That doesn't make the i3 objectively "better," mind you. In fact, the more-pure mission of the i3 brings with it a handful of drawbacks that you'll not experience in a Volt.

With all that said, it's reasonable to count among the Volt's equals the Ford Fusion Energi, the Toyota Camry Plug-In Hybrid, the new Hyundai Sonata Plug-in Hybrid and Kia's forthcoming Optima variant. With the Volt technically being a liftback rather than a true sedan, it's reasonable to call the Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid a competitor too. The list will include Hyundai's new Ioniq by the end of the year.

How does it look?Unlike some other dedicated hybrid platforms, the Volt opts for a more conventional sedan shape. Though it does still boast a lift-back cargo area rather than a trunk, it's not emphasized in the Volt's lines, allowing it to blend into traffic a bit more naturally than some traditional hybrid cars, which choose instead to make a statement.

The 2016 redesign has treated the Volt well. The sheet metal is entirely new, and for the better. The body is less angular (less prototype-like, in a way?) and certainly more pleasing to the eye. Up front, the chiseled headlamps of the old model are now smaller and more back-swept. The two-bar grille is gone, replaced with what we think may be the only real visual backslide of the redesign. The Volt's new front-end is--dare we say it--a bit Prius-like?

But the news is better elsewhere. The undeniably awkward black trim along the underside of the greenhouse is gone. the flanks now rise up to the hatch's built-in spoiler, rather than forcing the step-up look of the old model's rear end, and the tail lamps and rear hatch were restyled to incorporate this more curvaceous, taut look. Overall, we'd say the designers did a genuinely good job with the restyle.

And the inside?The news is good in here too. Our loaner was a range-topping Premier model with a baseball-glove-style black-and-tan interior. The work of Chevy's interior designers is arguably better than that of those who penned the new exterior. Let's run it down.

First off, gone is the cumbersome and visually too-tall center stack. The controls have been consolidated down to a handful of physical knobs and buttons underneath a sleek and well-integrated touch screen. The HVAC vents flanking either side of the screen itself now seem to flow from its sides rather than being tacked on, and a single chrome line runs from the beneath the screen to the vents at each side of the dash.

Even the "gear" selector was replaced, and for the better. Like the exterior, the new interior flows. At the risk of gushing, we're seriously impressed by Chevy's efforts to make the Volt feel less like some sort of strange design study and more like a car--a nice car.

And speaking of niceties, Chevy packed in features to back up the looks. The Premier model includes such comfort features as a heated steering wheel along with butt warmers for the front and rear seats. We had no issues with responsiveness when using the MyLink infotainment system, with all of the controls behaving as expected and the menus feeling generally intuitive rather than pointlessly complex.

We were also quite pleased with Chevy's OnStar RemoteLink app, and especially fond of the Volt-specific state-of-charge monitoring. Smartphone apps are becoming the norm rather than the exception these days, but we found the execution here both functional and, more importantly, useful. The more general functions, such as remote door locking and vehicle locating services aren't specific to the Volt and are equally handy, but it should be noted that they require an OnStar subscription.

We did have one complaint: The Volt, being designed with efficiency in mind, is not too eager in the heating and air conditioning department. They'll work fine with some coaxing, but don't expect the sort of ice-box cold you'll find in most GM cars. You should also expect to take advantage of the Volt's heated seats on cold days (which are already taxing on the EV drivetrain).

Sadly, we did not get to play around with Chevy's new smartphone integration. Our loaner had not yet been updated to enable Android Auto and time constraints didn't allow us enough time to pull in a test subject with an iPhone so that we could test Apple CarPlay. We'll revisit this in a future Chevrolet test drive.

But does it go?If only it were as simple as that.

When it comes down to it, the Volt behaves like a hybrid should. It's brisk off the line thanks to the instant-on torque of the electric drive, but that initial rush fades once the speedometer ticks past 40 MPH or so. The Volt is very much at home in the city, where both car and driver benefit from the hybrid's strengths and an environment of low-speed, stop-and go driving that preserves electric range far better than long highway slogs.

We'd be remiss if we didn't mention another "hey, neat" feature added to the Volt for 2016--one we nearly overlooked when driving it. If you reach for where you'd find a shift paddle on the left side of many steering wheels, you'll find a something familiar in form but altogether different in function. This is the toggle for the Regen on Demand feature in the new Volt, and it has no corresponding buddy on the right side (reach back there and you'll find the volume controls).

At first, we had no idea what this toggle did. We expected some sort of kick-down feature or perhaps a mode selector to go along with the aforementioned infotainment controls on the opposite side, but despite repeated taps, we saw no discernible reaction from any of the Volt's systems, powertrain or otherwise. It wasn't until we held this toggle depressed for several seconds that we realized what it was doing.

Regen on Demand activates the Volt's energy recovery system. It's essentially equivalent to lightly depressing the brake pedal only without any possibility of intervention from the hydraulic system. It's intended to be used on long downhill stretches or when approaching stop lights at a distance. Think of it like gearing down in a manual, only it recharges the batteries too.

If you're familiar with the Volt, you're probably thinking that this sounds sort of like using "L" mode on the gear selector, and you're not too far off the mark. "L" mode increases the "engine braking" effect across the board. Lift your foot off the accelerator and the Volt slows more rapidly in "L" than it does in drive.

Regen on Demand, on the other hand, works only when you're holding that paddle. It's more pronounced, and probably best used only sparingly when in drive. It's not whiplash-inducing, but it could make your passengers uncomfortable if not executed with some finesse. It's an on-off switch, and when was the last time anything that responded in binary modes like that was associated with a smooth ride? Proceed carefully.

The Volt's total range has never been anything to sneeze at. Anything touching the 400-mile mark is more than adequate for long-haul driving, especially if it's getting 40-plus miles per gallon. But in many ways the Volt subscribes to the old adage which warns that just because something can be done, it does not necessarily follow that it should be done.

The Volt's drivetrain is simply not suited to highway driving. Sure, if you park yourself in the right lane going the speed limit and let the cruise control do the work, it'll get you there. Just don't expect it to pass with much gusto or impress your passengers with its ability to merge quickly.

But our biggest gripe wasn't with the Volt's outright speed. We took issue instead with the Volt's desire to recapture energy whenever possible. Even in drive, the engine-braking effect on the highway made it difficult to keep pace in heavy traffic when speeds were regularly varying by 15-20 miles per hour. It wasn't impossible, just unpleasant.

We'd be hard pressed to substantiate Chevrolet's claim that the new Volt turns and rides substantially better than the old one without some back-to-back seat time. The Volt's steering is not quick, nor is the feedback particularly noteworthy.

The chassis is competent enough, especially for a car whose primary role is that of an efficient commuter, but we'd be lying if we said we didn't miss the new Prius's sophisticated double-wishbone rear suspension when we decided to toss the Volt around a bit.

Yes, you read that correctly.

Leftlane's bottom lineThe Volt is a specific kind of car for a specific kind of driver. While it may be more flexible than a pure EV and its conventional size and shape may make it more palatable to buyers who are turned off by the hemp-forward looks of the Prius and its competitors, the Volt is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. It's much better than the outgoing model, but make sure it suits your driving needs before blindly pulling the trigger.

2016 Chevrolet Volt Premier base price, $37,520. As tested, $40,845Driver Confidence 1 Package, $495; Driver Confidence 2 Package, $495; Iridescent Pearl Tricoat, $995; Chevrolet MyLink Radio, $495; Front license plate bracket, $20; Destination, $825

Photos by Byron Hurd.

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