2011 Chevrolet Volt First Impressions Review – Yes, it drives like a real car

Chevrolet Expert Reviews

By Derek Mau

Don’t bore me with the technical details about GM’s hybrid system built into the Chevrolet Volt. I don’t care if the Chevy Volt is a pure battery-electric vehicle, or a parallel hybrid, or a plug-in EV that requires an electrical umbilical cord. The techno-geeks can search elsewhere if they are looking for torque/power efficiency maps that identify speeds the gas engine engages to assist with driving the car. Just tell me if this Popular Mechanics wet dream, range-extended EV can take me where I want to any day of the week without having to include a visit to an electrical recharging station (which are mightily scarce here in eco-conscious California and around the North American continent).

I drove the new 2011 Chevrolet Volt at one of the stops for the Chevy Volt’s western region “Volt Unplugged” tour where they are traveling from Seattle to San Diego in a caravan of Volts. My test drive was short, but very revealing as it gave me an opportunity to learn more from the team of engineers and experts from GM. The test course, laid out in the Presidio of San Francisco, included a chance to test brief accelerations, ability to climb short hills, some sweeping turns, and lots of low speed driving. Freeway performance is “very good” according to the anecdotal accounts from the team members who are on the western region tour. So far the tour has been a success and traveling between cities has had zero hiccups. Every night the Volts on tour are recharged off a 110V outlet and everything is good to go in the morning.

Driving the 2011 Chevrolet Volt

Typical of all battery-electric cars, there is no audio cue to signify the car is alive. Switching on the ignition, the driver is treated to a light show displayed in the instrument cluster and 7-inch display placed in the center stack. There are three driving modes (normal, sport, mountain) with “normal” being the default mode that is most efficient and helps conserve battery power.

Driving around in “normal” mode the Volt is smooth and quiet. Our battery reserve is nearly depleted from a morning of test drives by the media and prospective customers, so the car is running with the internal combustion engine (ICE) generating electricity to help drive the car along in addition to the electrical motor powered by the battery. I can barely detect the ICE running in the background.

Meh. Acceleration is so-so. Maybe a little uninspiring until I switch to “sport” mode. Now the the throttle is more responsive, the engine revs higher, and it adds a little life to the otherwise humdrum driving experience. Braking is more than adequate for a car laden heavily with a several hundred pound lithium-ion battery pack buried under the floorpan. Ride quality is very good cruising over the bumpy streets of San Francisco.

2011 Chevrolet Volt interior

Back in “normal” mode effort from the car seems low tolling up a short hill. Scooting up the hill, there were no signs of struggling from either the electric drivetrain or ICE with three people in the car .

“Mountain” mode requires some planning and must be switched on 20 – 30 minutes before getting into long climbs in the mountain passes. Essentially, switching to “mountain” mode pre-conditions the battery pack’s reserve power so there is less chance of running out battery power on a long hill climb that is typical in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and California/Nevada Sierras. A Nissan Leaf would just wilt up and die if it attempted to drive up the pass to Shasta and a Prius would have to suck it up behind a fully loaded 18-wheeler at 30 mph because it would run out of juice and be unable to muster any more speed from its under-aspirated gas engine.

Does the Volt drive almost like any other car on the road? Yes, it can carry 4 passengers and some cargo and do it emitting zero emissions when in full EV mode. What is the battery-powered range of the Volt? The car can carry you for 40 miles without gas. That’s the promise from GM.

2011 Chevrolet Volt rear seat legroom

After that the Volt becomes a hybrid. It is actually the reverse of current hybrids like the Prius such that in the Volt the electric motor is the main motive force, and the gas engine is the minor assistant. In most of today’s hybrids the opposite is true. This allows the Volt to have the unmistakable feel of pure electric drive in all circumstances.

I can confidently say that GM has done a really good job of building and “over-engineering” an EV that will meet the innumerable challenges day-to-day driving presents us as go about our business every day. Others I spoke with at the drive event were also convinced that the Volt was the perfect replacement for their aging car.

Buying American Again

GM (and Ford) are capturing the attention of the American public in a good way. With forward thinking designs that people like and cars adapting to a sensitive green world, the American carmakers are turning the heads of buyers who are pro-Japanese and pro-European.

Angela, who has only owned cars from Japanese automakers, is seriously looking at the Volt to replace her 10 year old Mitsubishi Eclipse. Angela and her husband are admittedly techno-geeks, so the Volt was the only car worth considering after scanning over the other choices on the market today. After driving the Volt, Angela and her husband will seriously talk about putting down a deposit for a new Volt.


Marie, a resident of Tiburon and owner of a 2001 BMW3-series, has already put down a deposit and chosen a color for her new Volt due to arrive soon. She looked and test drove other cars, such as the Lexus HS 250h, and decided that the Volt was for her. Marie’s around-town errands typically fall within the 40 mile range of the Volt in EV mode, the interior was to her liking, and the acceleration was much better than the HS 250h. Being a petite woman, Marie easily got comfortable in the driver’s seat and had no problems with outward visibility or blind spots.

A couple from Union City had taken some time off from work to test drive the Volt. Judy and Ken had also put down a deposit on a new Volt to replace Judy’s 2003 Jaguar. Ken has been following development of the Volt since it was announced three years ago and was convinced that the Volt would be the perfect car for Judy’s daily commute. Judy commutes from Union City to Redwood City every day (approximately a 40 mile drive altogether) and they expect the Volt can take her to work and back on a single charge. Looking ahead, Judy’s company is changing locations soon and the commute will be beyond the Volt’s battery-powered EV range. Even with the longer commute, the Volt will still be able to handle the commute with its range-extended capability.

(Links to more Volt reviews and GM press announcement of “Volt Unplugged” tour on page 2)

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  • Donald Espeut says:

    Quite simply, if the volt is designed and built by GM it is bound to suck suck just like their Diesel cay of the seventies. The have yet to build a car. Obama should have let them die!!

    • Derek says:

      @Donald – let us know your thoughts AFTER you have researched the engineering that went into the Volt and have driven it more than 5 minutes. Quite possibly your opinion will change.

  • Derek says:

    CarReview had the Volt for a few days of testing. Read about how some of the adjustments we made living with an EV and how it compared to a Toyota Prius that we use a family vehicle.


  • francois says:

    40 miles on a full charge? That’s it? How long to fully charge it back up?

    Also, I heard you need to spend $2000 for a charging station at the house? What if you live in an apartment or other detached parking?

    It’s $41k and GM loses money on each car sold? What is the point?

    Shouldn’t we be focusing on a hybrid-diesel car?

    • Derek says:

      If you cannot connect to a SMART charging station, recharging the battery using a 110V source takes approximately 8 – 10 hours.

      Apartment dwellers, users that have detached parking, and workers where a plug-in isn’t available at their place of employment have to wait until the infrastructure to support electric vehicles is built up.

      GM may be losing some money up front being on the leading edge of the EV market, but the hard fact is that we need to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels because there is a limited supply and growing China is going to consume a lot more. Plus, we really need to reduce the amount of CO2 being pumped into the atmosphere and stop destroying the environment in which we live. This is a huge investment by the carmakers who have put a lot of research and production dollars towards EVs and they know it is a risky business in the beginning. The carmakers aren’t the only ones involved with EVs. There is a huge movement on several fronts (political, energy providers, recyclers) that are working towards making this a success because hybrid cars have been on the market for 10 years now and they only make up less than 2% of the total cars on the road today – hence FAIL!

  • francois says:

    Lithium Polymer and Lithium Ion batteries are wayyy more powerful than Nimh or Nicad batteries (per weight or volume). But they are finicky and dangerous. In an all-electric car, they are the only way to go. But in a hybrid, I guess there are choices. The big downside to the older safer batteries is they’re way heavier and take away a lot more storage/luggage room.


    • Derek says:

      I learned that lots of work was put into making the batteries safe, reliable, and worthy of many, many, many recharge cycles. GM over-engineered the Volt and their battery system is more robust than the Nissan Leaf’s. Example: heating AND cooling the battery pack is handled better than anything on the market today to ensure that the Volt will work in extreme environmental conditions since a battery’s performance drops rapidly when subjected to temps outside its normal operating range.

  • Derek says:

    A prime example of a hybrid using leading edge battery technology is the Hyundai Sonata Hybrid which uses a Lithium-Polymer battery. Learn more about the Sonata Hybrid watching the behind-the-wheel review video by Driving Sports TV.


  • Derek says:

    The nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) battery packs used in all Prius models are expected to last the life of the car with very little to no degradation in power capability.

    The hybrid system does not allow the battery to fully charge or discharge,and that helps maximize the life of the battery pack. I haven’t heard of any issues with “memory” problems, nor has Toyota replaced any battery packs due to a malfunction or wearing out.

  • Twain says:

    Awesome review, Derek. It is interesting/cool that it uses lithium-ion batteries. I believe the Prius uses Nicad which have “memory” problems, correct?

  • derek says:

    California is one of seven regions to receive the Volt as the first wave of sales takes off. Initial Volt sales regions are California, New York, Michigan, Connecticut, Texas, New Jersey and the Washington D.C. area.

    Unfortunately, California buyers won’t get the $3000 ultra-low emission vehicle rebate because GM didn’t certify the 2011 model.


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