2012 Chevrolet Volt Hatchback - FROM $39,145
The 2012 Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid is arguably the most fuel-efficient car on the market, but it's pricey for what you get.
What's New for 2012
For 2012, the Chevrolet Volt gets a slightly lower price tag, but its formerly standard navigation system and Bose audio system are now on the options list. New standard features include updated keyless ignition/entry and the new MyLink system. The latter provides Bluetooth streaming audio as well as voice control over the audio system and your cell phone.
In case you missed all the hullabaloo that occurred last year when this car debuted, let's get one thing straight: The 2012 Chevrolet Volt is not a pure electric car. Much of the general public initially assumed it was, helped along in this belief by the car's name and some vague marketing. The Volt is essentially a plug-in hybrid, meaning it has the ability to run much faster and farther under just electric power than a normal hybrid. In the Volt's case, this means up to 100 mph and anywhere from 25-50 miles without using a drop of gasoline.
Once you run out of battery juice, the gasoline-powered inline-4 engine kicks in, producing electricity for the motor and actually powering the wheels in some circumstances, stretching the Volt's range as much as an additional 300 miles. All told, the Volt is the most advanced hybrid to date and quite possibly the most fuel-efficient car you will be able to buy. We say "quite possibly" because you can't measure the Volt's fuel economy in any conventional way. It all depends on how you drive.
If you have a 30-mile round-trip commute and you plug in your Volt every night when you get home (a full charge requires as few as 3 hours), give yourself a gold star. Your fuel economy would be infinite because you'd always be running off the battery pack and hence never use gas.
Now let's say you have a 60-mile commute. In that case you'd be using gasoline for driving about 30 miles each day, so you'd be fueling up regularly. In an Edmunds test of a Volt with the battery pack depleted, the car averaged 31.4 mpg in mixed driving. This isn't a bad mileage figure compared to regular gas vehicles, but it is seriously subpar when compared to the mid-40s mpg that a standard hybrid typically provides.
As you can see, how far you routinely drive would be a huge factor in determining how thrifty the Volt would be for you. Most potential owners will likely be able to take advantage of its electric range. And electricity costs for recharging are but a fraction for the equivalent amount of gasoline. But looking at the big picture, this is not an inexpensive proposition. Even with a $7,500 federal tax credit, a base Volt will still cost about $32,500 -- and that's without the home charging station, which can be useful for a plug-in hybrid like the Volt.
Overall, we think the 2012 Chevrolet Volt represents an agreeable middle ground between a pure electric vehicle (which is usually limited to about 75 miles before needing a time-consuming recharge) and a standard hybrid (which doesn't offer the all-electric range and speed of the Volt).
A unique offering last year, the Volt faces some competition this year in the form of the new Toyota Prius Plug-in. The Prius offers only about 15 miles of pure electric range, but costs far less. The Nissan Leaf is a true electric car, though its range is limited to about 100 miles. If you want an intriguing yet practical taste of a greener automotive future, we suggest you check out the 2012 Chevy Volt.
Body Styles, Trim Levels, and Options
The 2012 Chevrolet Volt is a midsize four-door hatchback sedan with seating for four.
Standard features include 17-inch alloy wheels, automatic headlights, heated mirrors, keyless ignition/entry, remote ignition, automatic climate control, cruise control, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, six-way manual front seats, a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, cloth upholstery, Bluetooth, OnStar (with turn-by-turn navigation), MyLink (includes Bluetooth streaming audio, voice control for phone and audio functions and enhanced smartphone integration) and a six-speaker sound system with a CD player, auxiliary audio jack, iPod/USB interface and a touchscreen.
The Premium Trim package adds leather upholstery, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and heated front seats. The Rear Camera and Park Assist package adds a rearview camera and front and rear parking sensors. Other options include a navigation system (with voice controls, real-time traffic, DVD player and 30GB of digital music storage) and a Bose audio speaker upgrade.
Powertrains and Performance
The front-wheel-drive 2012 Volt is primarily powered by an electric motor rated at 149 horsepower (111 kilowatts) and 273 pound-feet of torque. This motor draws power from a 16-kWh lithium-ion battery pack until the battery charge is 70 percent depleted. At that point, the Volt's 1.4-liter four-cylinder internal combustion engine, which requires premium fuel, comes to life as a replacement power source for the electric motor. Under certain higher-speed conditions, the four-cylinder can also help power the wheels directly.
The battery can only be completely recharged through either a 120- or 240-volt outlet, but regenerative braking and the engine generator can replenish it slightly. In Edmunds testing, we found the Volt had an electricity range of about 25-50 miles. When the battery is depleted, our testing showed the Volt gets an average of about 33 mpg. In general, the term "your mileage may vary" has never been so true.
In Edmunds performance testing, the Volt went from zero to 60 mph in 9.2 seconds in electric mode and 9 seconds flat with the engine generator. Both are reasonably quick times for the traditional hybrid segment.
Safety features on the 2012 Chevy Volt include antilock brakes, stability control, front side airbags, front knee airbags and full-length side curtain airbags. In Edmunds brake testing, the Volt came to a stop in a respectable 124 feet.
In the government crash tests, the Volt scores an overall rating of five stars (the highest possible), with five stars for both frontal and side-impact protection categories. Similarly, in Insurance Institute for Highway Safety crash testing, the Volt earns the highest rating of "Good" in frontal offset, side-impact and roof strength tests.
Interior Design and Special Features
The 2012 Chevrolet Volt's distinctive center stack appears to have been modeled after various personal electronic devices with touch-sensitive buttons. It's a fitting theme for the car, but we've found the collection of small and similar-looking buttons makes actual operation a bit finicky. Overall interior quality is high, though, with materials that seem to be the best yet from recently improved Chevrolet.
In terms of functionality, the Volt's futuristic gauge readout is easy enough to read at a glance, though it washes out in sunlight. There's also a display -- sort of like the bubble in a spirit level -- that helps you stay in the most energy-efficient driving range. It's big and green when you are conserving fuel or battery energy and smaller and angry orange-yellow when you're not.
Space and comfort are a little disappointing. There is no power driver seat option, which limits adjustability and seems like an oversight in a car that costs $40,000. In back, there are just two seats in order to make room for the battery pack, and they lack both headroom and legroom; adults will likely feel cramped.
The Volt's hatchback design is convenient for loading cargo, but the swooping rear roof line and battery pack location limit maximum luggage capacity to just 10.6 cubic feet with the backseats up. The rear seats fold down to expand cargo capacity, but overall practicality is below that of a Prius.
The 2012 Chevrolet Volt accelerates quickly from a standstill and is very responsive at moderate speeds as well; it's the kind of performance that's typical of electric vehicles.
In all-electric mode, the Volt is as quiet and smooth as any EV we've driven -- and it's still a competent vehicle when the engine-generator kicks in. The change-over from battery charge to generator power can be difficult to notice, though once you inevitably do, it may take a while to get used to the engine revving regardless of engine speed.
The Chevy Volt feels slightly nose-heavy when you bend it around a corner, but it makes its moves with little body roll. Indeed, from the compliance of its ride quality to the weight and response of the steering, this Chevy Volt drives more naturally and feels more substantial than hybrids like the Honda Insight and Toyota Prius. One problem area is the brake pedal. It is quite touchy and can be difficult to modulate, though stopping distances are good. Another constant annoyance is the Volt's low-hanging front airdam, which scrapes on just about every driveway and speed bump.