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Review

First Drive: Chevrolet Volt car review

20/04/12

THE CHEVROLET Volt seems to have been around for ages, but the reality for British buyers is that the car has only just rolled up on these shores.

With right-hand-drive versions now available, albeit in small numbers, it’s time to see whether or not the plug-in hybrid Volt is worthy of the fuss that Chevrolet has been making of it for the last couple of years.

Looking at it makes me think of the film Back to the Future. Not because it looks anything like a DeLorean but because despite its futuristic drivetrain and displays the Volt’s styling is reminiscent of the ’90s. Look at the back end of an old Nissan 300 ZX and you’ll see what I mean.

The Volt is in the vanguard of plug-in electric cars, with a range of 35-40 miles on battery power alone that has to be replenished by plugging into a wall socket, with high-current fast-charge options available.

Other cars like it have been announced since details of the Volt first appeared, and these days it isn’t as far ahead of the curve as it was once thought to be, but it’s still one of the first cars out there to combine the ability to run entirely on electric power with a range-extending petrol engine.

It’s an arrangement that allows the hatchback-bodied car to maintain a surprisingly big boot and space for four adults in four individual seats, and it’s simple things like that which form the basis of its appeal.

But setting it apart from ‘normal’ cars is the array of active displays – one as part of the instrument cluster and another atop the centre console, through which the (optional) satellite navigation and media interfaces work.

You can also display your eco-performance in real time, which is fascinating. With a glance at the screen every few moments you can see how you’re doing in terms of saving energy. A big fat ‘250mpg+’ measurement when you’ve been running on electric power only, although technically pointless, is absolutely brilliant. I only wish it said ‘1,000,000,000mpg+’, which would be equally true and much more dramatic.

At the heart of the Volt, managing the wonderfully seamless exchanges between the electric motor and the 1.4-litre petrol engine are four selectable drive modes: Normal, Sport, Mountain and Hold. Normal leaves the car making the decisions and sees the electric motor used almost exclusively until battery power runs out.

Sport gives sharper throttle response, Mountain keeps back a reserve of electric power for helping the Volt to climb long, steep hills and Hold is a Europe-specific mode designed to use as little electric power as possible to allow you to decide when you want to use it – like scratching through town, for example.

But the great thing about Hold mode is that at low speeds, pulling away from a standstill and so on it still uses the electric motor alone, boosting average fuel economy massively.

It all works remarkably neatly. The motor offers impressive torque for quick acceleration up to urban speeds, the petrol engine can barely be heard most of the time it’s active, and the stylish on-screen diagrams make the Volt feel like a thoroughly modern car.

To be fair, sometimes the engine, which is attached to a constantly-variable transmission (CVT) revs strangely highly for a while, as if it needs to shift up a couple of gears. It’s the only anomaly in a pretty flawless drivetrain and is all the more conspicuous for that.

A small 35-litre petrol tank is all you get, to minimise the potential weight the car is carrying around on electric power. The Volt’s total range of 300 miles or more is probably not enough for outright convenience for high-mileage drivers but it’s plenty for most of us, and almost all the Volts that have been ordered so far are going to private buyers rather than business users.

They’d better be prepared for a slightly quirky interior, because half of it is swathed in a silvery-white plastic and the centre console doesn’t have traditional buttons. Effectively it functions like a giant touch screen and it takes some getting used to.

Marks against the car come in the shape of an overly firm, fidgety and tyre-noisy ride at A- and B-road speeds and the fact that the boot isn’t properly enclosed. More sound-proofing around the wheel arches would be a good thing. That’s more or less it, though.

The ancillary stalks and contact points are chunky and high-quality, the seat leather is soft and looks great, and that smooth, quiet engine and motor combination makes the Volt a genuine pleasure to potter around in.

It’s different to non-plug-in petrol-electric hybrids and it can be used more like a normal car, and the ease with which it allows and encourages zero-emission motoring is superb. It’s not cheap, but overlook it at your peril.

FACTS AT A GLANCE Model: Chevrolet Volt, £29,995 on the road, including £5,000 government grant.

Engine: 1.4-litre four-cylinder petrol engine producing 85bhp and electric motor producing 111kW.

Transmission: Constantly-variable transmission (CVT) driving the front wheels.

Performance: Top speed 99mph, 0-62mph in 9.0 seconds.

Fuel economy: 235.4mpg.

CO2 rating: 27g/km.

  • Engineshybrid
  • Power3 (average performance)
  • 0-60 mph
  • Economy5 (high fuel economy)
  • CO2g/km
  • Insurance groups4 (lower than average costs)
  • Airbags
  • Seats4

Motors.co.uk value verdict:    stars

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