Plug-In Hybrid Comparison Test: 2018 Chevrolet Volt
Starting Price: $34,100
Net power: 149 horsepower
Total range (gasoline/electric): 420 miles
Electric-only range: 53 miles
EPA fuel economy (city/highway combined): 42 mpg
The plug-in hybrid that became a household name
When the Chevrolet Volt debuted for 2011, it was a revelation heralding the modern-day mass-market plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV). While gasoline-hybrid vehicles like the Toyota Prius had been running around for a decade and a new generation of all-electric vehicles like the Nissan Leaf were about to bloom, the Chevy Volt became the standard-bearer of vehicles that would marry these two technologies.
In the seven years since the Volt arrived in America as the first readily available PHEV, numerous more have arisen. Whether it’s a direct rival like the new Honda Clarity plug-in, an SUV such as the Volvo XC90 T8, or a supercar like the BMW i8, they in some way owe the Volt for introducing the masses to a car powered by both a gasoline engine and an electric motor fed by rechargeable batteries.
The Chevy Volt entered its second generation in 2016 and became the better for it. It gained range in both all-electric driving (53 miles) and total distance, 5-passenger seating vs. the previous four, enhanced technology such as an infotainment system ready for Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and a sleek new design.
The 2018 Chevy Volt is the elder statesmen among plug-in hybrid electric cars, but it easily hung with the younger bucks in our recent 800-mile road trip from Southern to Central California and back. See some of the Volt's more important specs and how it compares to the other three cars taken on the trip.
Power is perfectly acceptable for this class, and we’ll go as far as saying the Volt even packs a punch when electrons are doing the work. In all-electric mode, the Volt has the satisfying acceleration associated with an electric vehicle (EV). Mash the throttle and Chevy’s plug-in electric vehicle scoots.
Unlike other PHEVs, as long as the Volt’s batteries have juice, the car will remain in EV mode unless instructed otherwise (i.e., putting it in Mountain mode reserves battery capacity on uphill climbs, while Hold mode uses the gasoline engine and saves battery power for settings such as the city where it’s more efficient). In Normal mode we ran the Volt up to 80 mph and beyond, and the vehicle continued to run exclusively on battery power.
Of course, the beauty of a plug-in electric vehicle like the Chevy Volt is that when the batteries deplete, the gas engine kicks on. With about 800 miles to cover and only two overnight recharges, the majority of our miles were driven with the Volt’s 1.5-liter 4-cylinder engine purring. As such, the Volt’s noise levels rose. And as with every other PHEV in this comparison except the Hyundai Ioniq, the Volt uses a continuously variable transmission (CVT) that drones. This was most apparent on long, steep hills. Driving up the Interstate 5 freeway over the Grapevine, the CVT droned heavily as the car gained thousands of feet in elevation.
On the driver-assist side, we appreciate that the Volt offers blind-spot monitoring, forward-collision alert, lane-keep assist, and automatic emergency braking, but we wish adaptive cruise control were available.
Fit, finish and comfort
Our testers were mostly impressed with the Volt’s handsome cabin. Controls for audio and climate are easy to see and use, and Apple CarPlay integration was smooth for most of us (one of our editors cited stubborn connectivity and a couple of software system crashes).
One missed opportunity we collectively noted was the driver’s seat. It is manual adjust even on the leather-lined Premier model, and not all that well bolstered. Additional lumbar support would have helped the miles fly by a little faster.
If you must slog through congestion, the Volt has a couple of tricks up its sleeve. One is a paddle on the left side of the steering wheel meant for “regen on demand.” Think of it as a brake. Pulling it slows the vehicle, though not to a dead stop (only down to 1 mph). The other is the L mode. Shifting the gear selector to this position enables “1-pedal” driving in that when you take your foot off the accelerator, the vehicle slows in a more aggressive way. Timed right in traffic, you can save stress on your foot and brain by not having to use the brake pedal as often. Both of these features use the energy created in slowing to help recharge the car's battery.
Our Pure-Electric Commute in the 2018 Chevrolet Volt
EPA estimated range: 53 miles
What we actually got: 53.3 miles
PHEVs dangle the tantalizing idea that, even though they have an on-board gasoline engine, some drivers will never need to burn a drop of gas as long as their daily commute is less than the vehicles’ electric-only driving range. At an EPA-certified 53 miles, that’s certainly possible with the 2018 Chevy Volt. Even better, in real-world driving we found that number accurate.
For our drive north, we intentionally left our Irvine, California headquarters at the height of rush hour, on what is routinely ranked one of the most congested freeways in the nation: Interstate 5. Stop-and-go, mind-numbing traffic may not be great for one’s psyche, but it’s ideal for an electric vehicle. Slow speeds take less energy, and all that braking means energy regeneration into the batteries. In these circumstances, the Volt traveled 53.3 miles on electricity alone before the gasoline engine kicked in.
On the way back, leaving from Campbell just outside San Jose, speeds were much higher. In that high-speed, open freeway situation, the Volt traveled 40.3 miles on electricity alone, exactly 13 miles less than in stop-and-go traffic. --Matt Degen
The other PHEVs in this test: