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2013 Chevy Volt Test Drive: Living the Life Electric

by Paul Strauss

A little while back, I had a chance to drive the Chevrolet Volt during the Chicago-to-Evanston EV Rally for a couple of hours. My curiosity was piqued enough by that experience that I arranged with GM to put the little plug-in hybrid through its paces for a full week. So with that said, here’s my hands-on review of the 2013 Chevy Volt.


My main objective for this test was to drive the Volt just as I would my regular car, driving to-and-fro in the city here in Chicago, picking up groceries, going out to dinner, and taking the occasional road trip. I figured this real world test would be the best way of knowing how well a plug-in electric vehicle would fit into my lifestyle, and then share these experiences with you.


For those of you without too much knowledge of the Chevy Volt, the vehicle uses an electric drivetrain, dubbed “Voltec” – with a a primary and a secondary motor to drive the front wheels. The car is designed to drive entirely on battery power for up to 38 miles, and then a gas engine kicks in to extend your range up to about 375 miles. But unlike traditional hybrids, the gas engine rarely drives the wheels. The Volt’s engine is basically a generator on wheels for keeping the electric motors running once the battery has drained out (and in a few other scenarios which I’ll explain later.) It’s also capable of boosting power under load and at high speeds by engaging the gas engine to help mechanically drive the wheels, like a conventional hybrid. It’s this powertrain versatility that really differentiates the Volt from its competitors.


I started out my first ride in the Volt with a fully-charged battery pack. Charging the battery is a simple process which involves either plugging into a high-voltage “Level 2” 240VAC connector (typically found at commercial charging stations), or into a standard 110VAC household outlet. When connected to a Level 2 charging station, the Volt can go from an empty battery pack to full in about four hours. In my tests on my regular 110VAC outlet, it took about 12 hours.


For me this wasn’t a problem, since I’d park the car in the garage at night when I came home, and typically didn’t go out until late in the morning. And even if the battery isn’t fully charged, you always have the insurance policy of the gas engine as a backup. If you need to charge up an empty battery in less time, you can always have a Level 2 charger installed at your home for about $2000, and some of this expense can be recovered via tax credits and rebates.


For the most part, I drive short hauls in the city and suburbs, and found that for the first 3 days I drove the car, I used virtually no gasoline. In fact, the only time the gas engine kicked in and sipped any fuel at all was for a minute here or there when the temperature was exceedingly cold. The Volt’s charging system automatically does this to help heat up the cells to their optimum temperature if they’re too cold. While the temperature outside was typically around 20 to 35 degrees during my entire test, this only kicked in a couple of times during the week. That said, I can imagine the gas engine kicking in more frequently in the depths of winter to help get the batteries up to temperature.


Interestingly enough, the sticker reports fuel economy of 98 MPGe on electric power, and 37MPG on gas power. But as they say on the Internet, “YMMV,” and mine definitely did – in a good way. In fact, I managed to achieve a peak of about 163 MPGe towards the end of my battery charge. Of course, that doesn’t mean that much, since batteries don’t use gas at all. The only reason there’s an MPGe rating at all is so you can figure out how much gas you’re using when the gas engine has to kick in.


As for the gas engine, it’s a small 1.4L 4-cylinder, that’s more than capable of pulling the Volt down the road for longer road trips. In fact, I took a 200 mile road trip one day to see how the Volt would handle the transition from electric to gas operation. I was pleasantly surprised that the transition is virtually seamless. Moments before the battery runs out of juice (which was at about 29 miles on such a cold day), the gas engine simply kicks in and takes over. The car is well insulated, so engine noise is minimal when running, though I did kind of miss the complete silence of those times when I was on full battery power. It’s kind of a cool feeling. After my road trip, my MPGe had dropped to about 55, which isn’t too shabby, and I still had enough gas left to go another 150 miles.


If you have any concerns about how zippy an electric vehicle might be, you can stop worrying. Its motors are capable of pushing out an admirable 273 lb.-ft. of torque, which lets you take off from stop lights with smooth and instantaneous acceleration. Sure, its 8+ second 0-to-60 time isn’t track-worthy, but that instant acceleration is quite nice when hitting an entrance ramp on the highway. I never felt that the car was underpowered, even at highway speeds.


Beyond its drivetrain, the Volt is actually a very nice little car. It’s got ample front seats and headroom for two tall adults, though the back seats can be pretty cramped if you’ve pushed the front seats back for people with long legs. There’s also a nice-sized hatchback, and split 40/60 folding rear seats – providing plenty of room for groceries, packages and luggage. There’s also a storage bin for the vehicle’s 110VAC charging cable, an air pump and tire sealant in place of a spare tire to cut down on weight and space requirements.

As equipped, my Volt had a really nice tech package, complete with GPS navigation with traffic information, XM radio, Bluetooth hands-free smartphone integration, Pandora and Stitcher apps, and 3 years of GM’s OnStar service. Most of the tech is accessed on a nice 7″ touchscreen, with touch-sensitive dash controls for frequently accessed features like temperature, radio volume and the like. There are also steering wheel controls for hands-free phone and media playback, as well as cruise control. Other bells and whistles include a USB charging jack, keyless entry and remote start, an LCD driver’s information cluster, and heated remote control mirrors. The optional heated leather seats made my backside nice and toasty, and also cut down on the need to drain power with the primary heating system.


Overall, I was very impressed with the Chevy Volt. Living in the city, with relatively short daily commutes, and a garage, I’m the perfect customer for this car. The only issues I found with the car were the extremely low front aerodynamic cowl, which scrapes on just about every speed bump, and the less-than-stellar rear seat legroom, but those are minor concerns. If you drive less than 15 miles each way to work, and have a place to plug it in, you could theoretically go months between filling up the Volt’s diminutive 9.3-gallon gas tank. Plus, the gas engine backup gives you the peace of mind that you can take the occasional long road trip without worry about finding a charging station along the way.


Lest you have any worries about battery life and replacement cost, Chevrolet allays those fears by including an outstanding 8-year/100,000 mile warranty on the battery pack and Voltec system. The rest of the drivetrain gets 5-year/100,000 mile coverage.

Base price for the Chevy Volt is $39,145(USD), but the fully outfitted model I drove had a sticker price of $43,020. Most of that cost was for the leather heated seats, polished aluminum wheels and red paint tint-coat, but about $1,500 was for the navigation and Bose speaker systems which, as a tech guy, are must-haves. While that is definitely pricey for a Chevrolet, you’ll save substantially on fuel costs, and could reduce your cost by as much as $7,500 in federal tax savings. Some states also offer local tax credits for EV and hybrid vehicles. Illinois, for instance has offered tax rebates up to $4,000, though the program is currently on hiatus, and likely to return later this year. There are also tax breaks available if you decide to install a Level 2 charging station in your home or garage.

Disclosure: Chevrolet provided the loan of the car for review in this article. However, all reviews are the unbiased views of our editorial staff, and we will only recommend products or services we have used personally, and believe will be good for our readers.

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Comments (16):

  1. Kyle says:

    Nice to see an unbiased article with all the facts straight. One thing I thought of towards the beginning of this write up. The 2013 volt defaults to 8 amp charging, which is as slow as it can possibly charge. I’m assuming you didn’t change that setting as 12 hours seems a little long. So long as the car is plugged in overnight, you shouldn’t ever have any less than a full battery, unless the wiring in your garage can’t handle more than an 8 amp draw.

    • Paul Strauss says:

      Thanks. Trying to keep it real here.

      I didn’t realize you could change the charging profile like that.

      We’ve got a single 20amp circuit running to the garage, and the only other thing on the circuit is the garage door opener which might draw 9 to 10 amps – but only when in use – which wouldn’t be at the same time as charging typically, so I suppose I could have tried a higher amperage setting.

  2. JCook says:

    Very good unbiased article on the Volt. One thing of note it the MPG display on the center console is not the same as MPGe. You would have to calculate that yourself based on the electrical energy you used vs. the miles covered. The 163 MPGe you stated is just the miles covered with the gas you used, negating the electrical energy used. So really when it comes to total energy efficiency for the Volt it will be somewhere between ~38 MPGe and 98 MPGe. The ~98 MPGe being the top end because it is it’s efficiency when running pure electric.

    • Paul Strauss says:

      That’s good to know. I didn’t realize that the MPG display was different from the MPGe rating. That’s definitely a bit confusing. Why does the MPGe rating scale exist then? It seems kind of confusing, and true MPG like the display reads seems more logical to me.

      • JCook says:

        Mark in the next comment is right on on this. The basic MPG figure only tells you just that (Miles per Gallon of gasoline). The MPGe is a rough estimate of Miles per energy used as compared to gasoline and it uses the ~34kWh of energy per gallon number, which is slightly debateble. It gives consumers a close comparison in the total efficiency difference when running pure electric. So it basically depends on your reason for buying a plug in. Is it to just not burn forien oil, or is it to use less total energy? Like I said before the MPG display negates your electrical energy usage, this is why it shows 250+ when you have only used electrical power, the + is becasue using this method it is actually or approaching infinity. X miles/0 gallons=infintity MPG

  3. Mark says:

    Paul: MPGe, for better or worse, is a method for measuring electric vehicle efficiency as to how well it uses the kWh (kilowatt hours) of energy available. Since a gallon of gasoline contains the equivalent of ~34 kWh of energy, this means that with this same amount of energy and average driving habits, climate, etc., one could expect the Volt to be able to travel ~98 miles from the same amount if energy in one gallon of gas (and this includes ~15% charging losses). So this also demonstates the power train in a well-engineered EV like the Volt can be easily three times as efficient as an equivalent weight and performance gasoline vehicle; probably even a bit better in terms of 0-30 mph torque and efficiency (a low end mid-to-compact Mercedes is probably the closest comparison, and there you are talking ~22 mpg) Finally, your own Electrid Mode MPGe could vary a lot, if you have lead foot and blast the heat, it’s probably closer to 75 MPGe. And even the best “hypermiler” probably wouldn’t do better than 125 MPGe. Still that’s darn efficient for a vehicle that’s so much fun to drive!

  4. Bryce says:

    Great article. I have owned two Prius and now a 2013 Volt, I love it feels good to buy Made in the USA. I’m getting 200mpg lifetime right now. I am lucky to charge at home and work so I only use gas on the once per month road trip.

  5. Dignon says:

    I’ve had my Volt for 2 years. I bought it instead of a traditional gas powered import in the same price range. This car is every bit as good as a BMW or Audi. No regrets in buying it, I’ve had zero issues.

    Year one I saved $2000 in gas net of the electricity cost. Year two, the same. So I’ve already banked $4k in gas savings, and that $2k/yr savings will continue for the next 10 years unless the price of gas goes up. Then I’ll be saving even more!

    And this car is fun to drive. Quick, silent, smooth, hugs the corners and works well in snow. The only problem: everyone in our family wants to drive my Volt.

    P.S. My lifetime mileage at almost 30k miles stands at 145 MPG. Not as good as other Volt owners who can plug in at the office, but not bad.

  6. sanjay says:

    I have owned my 2013 Volt for 1 month now and am a very satisfied customer in terms of the drive, great fueld economy, interactive technology and OnStar and dealer support. I switched from a Saab 9-5 Turbo sedan and don’t miss the power or comfort at all.

    Cost: Besides the federal and state cash incentive, between GM and the dealer I got $6K off MSRP and 4 year interest free financing which makes the effective price very low. It offset my concern over the depreciation and in face convinced me to buy instead of leasing (either is a good option). I have now decided to not spend the $2K to install a 240V charger. I can charge the car with my 110V connection at 12Amp in 10 hours if the battery has depleted completely.

    Mileage: I am pleasantly surprised with the mileage. I am getting about 45 miles on a full charge, and 40 mpg on gasoline. That said I live in LA where the weather is very mild.

  7. john doe says:

    I had the opportunity to drive the volt for a couple of days and I like the car a lot but it would be nice to have a smaller more fuel efficient gas engine. Also, would like a door lock/unlock button on the door near the power window button. Making a bench seat in the back would be a good move and a interior handle to grab just above the door would be nice. Not sure that GM listens to it’s customers feedback though. It seems many companies these days are tuned out to what the customers really want?

    • Kyle says:

      The reason the back seat isn’t a bench seat is because the battery is located in the “hump” that runs down center of the floor.

  8. Sharon says:

    I have a volt.i looked at purchasing a BMW, Audi , and a Volvo…. I decided to buy the Volt. The handling and comfort are comparable to the other vehicles, and I don’t really ever use gas! Only on long trips, and the gas mileage on pure gas has been great. Between the federal tax credit of $7500, rebates and dealer haggling, I got about 12k off the sticker and zero percent financing for 72 months. Not bad. I look at it this way – if I bought a BMW,I would have a higher payment plus fuel costs. Now I have a lower payment and negligible fuel costs. Some may think I’m out of line to compare a Volt to a BMW, Audi or Volvo, but if you drive one, you’ll see why it’s in the same class for comfort and handling.

  9. Sharon says:

    Another thing…. I love the cargo space in the volt. Traditional hybrids have a big battery bank behind the back seat that eats up your trunk space and doesn’t allow for the seats to fold down. The volt isn’t configured this way. You can fold down the back seats and have ample room to carry cargo. You can’t do that in a fusion! Volts have great cargo space!

  10. dave says:

    i have had my volt for a couple weeks and cudos to the American engineers who designed it. no more german engineer stuff from Volkswagen. How can you plug 110 and 220 into the same plug without blowing something?

  11. Audi Service says:

    Looks to be a good car, nice article to.

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