Plug-in hybrids such as the Chevrolet Volt offer the efficiency of an electric car and the certainty of a gasoline engine. The Volt can run on pure electricity, but it carries its own gas-powered generator, so when it runs out of juice, it can keep going. So unlike fully electric cars, it won't leave you on the side of the road wishing for an extension cord.
The Volt's four-seat, hatchback design makes it a very good all-purpose vehicle, and its electrified powertrain makes for very low operating costs. And we found the Volt fun to drive. However, its sticker price makes it a pricey investment up front, even after federal and state tax credits.
The 2013 Volt gets some improvements and additional features. Previously, the Volt automatically allocated its electric power depending on driving mode and style. For 2013, a new Hold button allows the driver to manually choose whether to use the Volt's available electric power immediately, or whether to save it for later use. This can help maximize electric range if the driver saves the electricity for stop-and-go city driving. The 2013 Chevrolet Volt also gets an EPA-estimated increase of three more miles on electric charge, to 38 miles. After that, the engine kicks in and you're driving a regular gasoline-powered car.
Options for 2013 include a new, lower-priced navigation system that replaces the old system and uses the Chevy MyLink interface, as well as a low-emissions package that gives Volt drivers in California and New York access to carpool and HOV lanes when driving alone. A new Comfort Package includes heated front seats and a leather-wrapped steering wheel. The optional Safety Package 1 includes an auto-dimming rearview mirror, rear park assist and rearview camera. Safety Package 2 includes front park assist, forward collision alert and lane departure warning.
At the heart of the Chevrolet Volt is a 111-kilowatt electric motor that puts out the equivalent of 149 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of torque. It's powered by a T-shaped lithium-ion battery mounted under the center console and rear seat. The 435-pound battery has its own heating and cooling system to operate efficiently in extremes of temperature. The Volt will run solely on electricity until it's 70 percent depleted, then a 1.4-liter four-cylinder internal-combustion engine kicks in to power the electric motor.
The Volt gets an EPA rating of 98 miles per gallon equivalent (MPGe) and 35/40 mpg City/Highway using the gasoline engine.
Anyone who drives less than 30 miles a day should never have to put gas in the Volt, and drivers who can plug it in and charge it up while at work will double its plug-in range. We've talked to a number of drivers who do this and they say they use so little gas that they have to worry about it going bad in the tank.
Combined with the gasoline engine, the Volt has a total range of about 382 miles. With a 240-volt fast charger, the Volt can fully charge in about four hours. With a regular 120-volt household outlet, the Volt takes anywhere from 10 to 16 hours to charge, depending on temperature.
Driving the front-wheel-drive Volt is really no different than driving any gasoline-powered compact or mid-size car, and the Volt is more energetic and enjoyable than some of them. Its handling is much better than that of the all-electric Nissan Leaf.
Just a couple of years ago, the Volt was the only plug-in hybrid on the market. That has changed. Ford's C-MAX plug-in hybrid offers up to 21 miles in electric mode only, and can go up to 620 miles with a fully charged battery and a full tank of gas. While it can't go as far in pure EV mode, C-MAX offers nearly double the amount of total cargo space, and a price tag that's about $6,000 lower. The Toyota Prius plug-in is also less expensive with the most cargo space of the bunch, but it only offers a six-mile all-electric range.
Volt and other plug-in hybrids qualify for a federal rebate, plus additional credits in some states.
The 2013 Chevrolet Volt ($39,145) comes with cloth upholstery, automatic climate control, keyless ignition/entry, remote start, a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, height-adjustable driver's seat, cruise control, Bluetooth, Chevrolet's MyLink touchscreen interface with voice controls, Bluetooth and smartphone integration, and a six-speaker audio system with CD player, satellite radio capability, auxiliary audio jack and USB port. Exterior features include automatic headlights, heated outside mirrors and 17-inch alloy wheels.
Options include a Comfort Package ($275) that adds heated front seats and a leather-wrapped steering wheel), a Premium package ($1,395) that replaces the cloth upholstery with leather and adds heated front seats, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and a removable rear seat armrest with storage. Standalone options include navigation ($895) and a premium, 7-speaker Bose energy efficient audio system ($495). An available low-emissions package for California and New York is free of charge, but this option must be added at the time of order.
Safety features include eight airbags: front-impact, front- and rear-passenger side impact, and full cabin head-protection curtains. The Volt also gets stability control (ESC), anti-lock brakes (ABS), and OnStar telematics with features like crash notification and on-demand roadside assistance (with three years of service included). The Volt has been named a Top Safety Pick by the insurance industry's Institute for Highway Safety, and earned five of five stars in four of five U.S. government crash tests. Optional safety equipment includes an Enhanced Safety Package 1 ($575) with an auto-dimming rearview mirror, rear park assist and rearview camera. The Enhanced Safety Package 2 ($595) includes front park assist, forward collision alert and lane departure warning.