2012 Chevrolet Volt

The Chevrolet Volt went on sale about a year ago, and that’s how long it’s been since I’ve driven one. The memories are fond, but can they be trusted? I had that question in mind when I grabbed the keyless entry fob to an updated 2012 model to find out.

The biggest change is that new Volt is both cheaper and more expensive than the one it replaces. Not making sense? Remember, it’s the car of the future, so the laws of pricing that you and I are familiar with don’t apply.

In truth, the drop from $41,000 to $39,995 (before tax credits) was accomplished through the “decoupling” -- as it’s known in the biz -- of a couple of previously standard features on the base model, in order to get the sticker price below the psychological barrier of $40,000. The hitch is that when you add them back in as options, most notably the $1995 navigation system, the grand total is higher than it was last year. Plus, now it only comes with three years of free OnStar service instead of five, which represents a further loss in value of $598.

So, for once, some early adopters actually made out. That is, as long as they don’t miss the new color of the PRNDL backlighting, the larger typeface used on the center console or the couple of other minor revisions along those lines.

The most significant mechanical change is the addition of a button to turn off the traction control, something the 2011 model was lacking. Unfortunately, I still couldn’t get the Volt to do the smoky yet zero-emissions front-wheel burnout I’ve been dreaming of. It’s not for a lack of grunt, the electric motors put out a healthy 273 pound-feet of torque, but rather the car’s wide tires and relatively heavy weight.

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Otherwise, the Volt is the same four-passenger, compact plug-in hybrid hatchback with a 16 kWh battery that can power the car for 35 miles in all-electric mode before a 1.4-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine kicks in to generate electricity that it was last year. And even if that’s a mouthful, it’s a good thing.

With all of the seats filled with my family this time around, the Volt drove as well as I remember. It’s plenty able to get out of its way, as quiet as many forty grand luxury cars and has a ride that’s smooth enough to make some of them jealous. A soft suspension eats up the bumps while its portliness keeps it from bouncing around.

When the engine kicks in and starts burning dino juice to extend the car’s range, you hardly notice it. That is as long as you don’t floor the accelerator. Even then, the noise it makes is no louder than what you find in a more conventional hybrid, like a Camry.

The interior is a mix of very good and very cheap plastics, but the design is postmodern enough to make up for any material shortcomings. A premium trim package adds better than expected leather to the buckets, steering wheel and armrests, and does wonders for the overall appeal. It’s really a must, as is the crystal clear Bose audio system. When a car is this quiet, you really appreciate how very good or very bad the stereo is, and this one is excellent.

The rear seats are as comfy as the fronts, and room back there is adequate, if not impressive by compact standards. Same goes for the cargo area. Under it is a place to store the charging cables, as well as an electric air pump with a fix a flat kit instead of a spare. In the event of a massive pneumatic failure, the Volt comes with five years of roadside assistance.

The only thing everyone will hate about the Volt is its rear visibility. It’s terribly compromised by the slope of the hatchback, which creates huge over the shoulder blind spots and a horizontally-split view in the rear view mirror. The floating center console is a personal gripe of mine thanks to a sharp edge that lines up exactly with the tendons of my knee when I rest it against it. Not good for extended-range trips.

Speaking of which, in my experience, that 35 mile EPA rated electric range is conservative and 40 is closer to the norm, with 50 not at all out of the question. While that probably sounds pathetic to those of you reading this in Kansas and Montana, I really had to go out of my way to clear 40 miles on a typical outing in the New York Metro area, and that included adding a stop at my parent’s house to stretch it out. They were very pleased.

My dad, a former teamster and truck salesman who drives a Mercury Marquis by choice, was pretty smitten by the Volt. He even liked the way it looks, which is much more eye-catching in person than in photos, despite the low-hanging truck nuts-style reverse light. Aside from that blemish, the sharply-cut, aerodynamically-efficient edges and trim details of the body give the Volt a digital look that stands out as if someone slipped a computer rendering of an economy car into the real world.

In many ways that is what the Volt still is: a concept car that snuck onto the road. There will be tweaks along the way as Chevrolet figures out what customers are really expecting from it, in the hopes of selling 60,000 units worldwide next year. As of the end of August, the tally stands at less than 4,000, but production is just ramping up and GM says it’ll sell 10,000 by the end of 2011 -- just as it promised a year ago.

We’ll be sure to check back and see how it did next year.


2012 Chevrolet Volt

Base Price: $39,995

Type: 4-passenger, front-wheel-drive, 5-door hatchback

Power: 149 hp, 273 lb-ft torque

Electric Range: 25-50 miles

Combined MPG-Equivalent: 94 electric-only/37 extended-range