It’s true.  Not only are muscle cars, hot rods, V8 luxo-cruisers, super-extendo-cab 1-ton pickups and earth-destroyer SUVs  no longer cool, but they are rapidly becoming shameful.  So what’s hip to be seen cruising the strip?  Mini-cars, ultra-econo-sedans, clean diesels, hybrids and, especially, extended range plug-in electric vehicles.  While many gas-guzzler ads laughably brag about gettting over 20 mpg highway, the reality is that many of us spend a good portion of our driving in a commute or getting between stop signs and lights in suburbia.  Getting 12 mpg or even 16mpg around town is sooo 1980s.  No, CarseatBlog isn’t taking a break from giving you over-hyped, holier-than-thou information on keeping your kids safe in motor vehicle crashes.  We’re just adding some over-hyped, holier-than-thou information on protecting them from the effects of airborne environmental triggers, toxic air pollutants and long term political consequences of our rampant lust for imported oil.  At $4.50 for regular, who can blame us?

That’s where the new 2011 Chevrolet Volt arrives to give new technology buyers a way to have the coolest ride in town.  The question is, aside from gas savings and pure coolness, will it haul kids and adults safely to their destination?  The quick answer is a resounding YES! (Provided you have a small family or a larger second vehicle!). 

My wife has a Toyota Prius.  We probably drive it more like a typical car than many Prius owners.  We get about the rated fuel economy of 50 mpg overall, a lot less in the Chicago winter, somewhat more for the rest of the year.  Others who nurse their Prius on the roads tend to get well above that, especially in areas where it doesn’t get below freezing for prolonged weeks or months of the year.  Volt owners, on the other hand, can brag about nearly infinite miles per gallon.  As long as you don’t drive more than 35 miles or so between plug-ins, you can use virtually no gasoline at all.  With careful driving, I understand this can reach 50 miles per charge.  If you can plug-in at work and drive conservatively, you could have a commute of 60 to 100 miles and still use nearly zero gasoline.  Plus, if you do happen to run out of charge, you still have 300 miles of extended range from the gas tank.

You obviously don’t want to dip into the tank very often.  The gas motor runs on premium and gets “only” 30 to 40 mpg.  If you’re routinely running 100 miles into the gas tank, then the operating cost and fuel efficiency benefits compared to a Prius are essentially negated.  You can find plenty of blogs and websites dedicated to showing you what car is the best value for your typical driving.  One thing is certain, though, if you know you can plug-in when necessary, you won’t be buying more than a tank or two of gas a year and you’ll be polluting less than a traditional hybrid, too.   Even without the optional fast 240V charger, I had no issues charging up overnight and getting partial charges during the day.

The Volt comes with a standard 120V home charging kit in the trunk, as seen in the video.  It can take a full night to go from empty to full charge.  The faster 240V unit charges in a few hours, but costs $1000 to $1500 installed.  I don’t have a long commute, so for running the kids around town, the standard charger was fine.  If you drive a lot more miles per day, the 240V charger is probably a necessity.

Enough about fuel economy, you say?   The Volt goes beyond that.  It not only looks ultra-slick, but it drives slick, too.  While it wins no performance crowns with 0-60 times around 9 seconds, it feels faster in “Sport” mode and when passing or merging in traffic.  The response to the accelerator petal was smooth with no lag.  I found the handling to be pretty good, too, despite the fuel efficient, low rolling resistance tires.  Really, it feels like a sports coupe with the low ride and good road feel.  True driving enthusiasts may not be impressed, but the Volt impresses everyone else a lot more around the city, either when parked for gawkers or when zipping between stops in traffic without emitting a puff of smog.  Braking seemed quite good to me as well, with no unusual feedback or response.  No issues with comfort; I had no complaints after a week in the driver seat that seemed comfortable and supportive.  All around, it’s a lot more fun to drive then my wife’s 2010 Prius hybrid.  Plus, you can silently floor it from a stop now and then and not feel too guilty about using a pint of gas and sending your trip computed miles per gallon suddenly downward in the process!

My Volt tester had a base price of $40,280, plus $1395 for the leather trim package, $995 for the special off-white paint (almost cream colored), $695 for the rear camera and proximity sensors and $595 for the polished 17″ alloy wheels for a total of $44,680.  There is a $7500 federal tax credit available on the Volt, too.  On the downside, stories abound of dealer gouging for well above sticker price in some areas.  Hopefully, once more people start seriously buying into reducing our use of foreign oil, electric car prices will come down, as they have for many hybrids.  My Volt was made in Detroit with 40% North American content.  Onto some likes and dislikes:

Pros:

  • Doesn’t use gas.  But it has a 300 mile backup gas tank if you drive it beyond a charge.
  • Very fun to drive
  • Looks great and gets a lot of stares and positive comments
  • Whisper silent around town.  Road and wind noise at highway speeds is good, but not ultra quiet.
  • Awesome dual color displays and large touchscreen
  • Dash storage compartment has a charger outlet, too
  • Ride and handling are good, acceleration is decent
  • High quality leather seating looks great. 
  • Interior looks good overall, but not luxury class
  • Doors and Trunk give a re-assuring thud and close easily
  • OnStar is great, I wish I had a chance to use the cool remote app
  • 5 year/100,000 mile powertrain warranty (8 years for battery and voltec system)
  • Turn-on sound effect is reminiscent of a Doom video game door opening or weapon powerup
  • Remote Start (standard) and automatic heated front seats (leather package)

 

Cons:

  • Pricey, even after tax credit.  GM has a more reasonable lease option, though
  • Wide A-Pillars block forward view at the corners, rear visibility is mediocre
  • No rear wiper, though this is perhaps no worse than the feeble Prius wiper
  • No advanced safety features like lane departure or collision warning systems
  • No cargo cover
  • Learning curve for some features, like the parking brake button, door unlock buttons on dash, the shifter and the charger theft alarm that got me a few times.  Also took me a while to figure out how to stop Navigation directions (it’s at the bottom of a scroll down menu)
  • Low door entry and seating position.  My wife hit her head getting in a couple times.  This is the compromise for the sporty look, handling and low ground clearance for better fuel economy.
  • Very low front ground clearance; pay attention to bumps, hills and the proximity alarms!
  • Bose audio system is touted for being energy efficient, but the sound is uninspiring given the hype I had read about it.
  • No bluetooth audio streaming (but bluetooth hands free phone system is standard)

Cost and visibility are the biggest drawbacks I found, the rest of them are pretty trivial, especially if fuel economy is your main reason for wanting a Volt.  How about safety?  The Volt is currently untested by the NHTSA in the new 2011 crash testing system, but it is due to be tested soon.  The Volt’s corporate cousin, the Chevrolet Cruze, received perfect government crash test results.   (Update: The Volt also received a 5-star overall rating in the 2011 NHTSA crash tests.)  To improve frontal crash performance, the Volt features GM’s new DLLP (Dynamic Locking Latch Plate), a fancy acronym for something that looks like a fairly typical buckle system found in the rear seat of some vehicles.  Unlike some of those bulkier buckles, it slides easily, until the sudden tension of a crash event causes it to quickly cinch.  On the plus side, the Volt, like the Cruze, has received a 2011 Top Safety Pick from the IIHS.  It includes a full complement of airbags, stability control and OnStar emergency notification for 5 years.

Perhaps the biggest drawback for families with kids is this: It’s a 4-seater.

As the video shows, it’s mostly the same type of challenges you’d find in any small car.  It is compounded slightly because you can’t take advantage of the rear seat center position to install a rear-facing child seat.  A larger rear-facing convertible will take considerable legroom from the front driver or passenger.  I tried a few and all installed well.  A Cosco Scenera convertible, Britax B-Safe infant seat and Graco Snugride 30 all took some legroom, but left enough for an average sized adult up front.  A taller convertible like a Sunshine Kids Radian will take more room, making it uncomfortable for a taller adult in front.  I could not find an ideal location to attach the accessory strap for convertibles that permit a rear-facing tether to be used.

Front facing carseats pose less of a challenge.  They typically install well and leave just enough legroom for the kids in them.  I even installed larger models like the Recaro ProSport and Britax Frontier 85 without issues.  The seatbelt was just long enough to install the Frontier using the longer “reverse” belt path routing.  My 6-year old son (48″ tall, 48 pounds) rode most of the week using a Sunshine Kids Radian XTSL, installed with its SuperLatch system.  I encountered no problems.

 

The lower LATCH anchors are somewhat recessed and angled downward slightly, at least with the leather seating option.  They should still be relatively easy to use with most child safety seats because the attachments are on flexible straps.  A few models with rigid LATCH attachments will be a little more difficult to install than the super-easy installations they generally provide, due to the downward angle needed to attach them.  The top tether anchors are easily found on the back of each rear seat.  The rear shoulder belts are not height adjustable, but there is a comfort guide for positioning, similar to the shoulder belt guides found on some backless boosters.  The owner’s manual also includes a nice section on using seatbelts for kids, with a version of the 5-step test.  Kudos to Chevrolet for including this!

  

Both rear seats fold forward.  This allows for removal of the head restraints and for improved cargo space.  Even with both seats in use, you can still fit some luggage and a good load of groceries.  The rear seat and cargo area seem smaller to me than our Prius, but they are still respectable for a compact car.  Overall, the Volt is an excellent commuter car, if your commute is such that you won’t be running out of charge for long periods.  It’s also a great urban/suburban option for a second car to use around town or running errands, perhaps when you don’t have the whole family with you.  It’s also simply a fun car to drive as a fashionable alternative to a sports car or if you only have one or two kids.  As it is lacking a 5th seat and is still missing NHTSA crash test results, I can’t say it’s a great family vehicle, but it is certainly very capable for those who are a good match for its few limitations.  I haven’t driven the Nissan Leaf yet (but Kecia has reviewed it), but if cost was no object and we had only two kids, the Volt would be my top choice for zipping around town!  It is that cool. 

The debate will rage on as to the cost saving and fuel saving potential of the Volt against its competition, like the Nissan Leaf and Toyota Prius.  Where some critics lose sight of the goal is that all of these cars offer the potential for a huge reduction in oil consumption, air pollution and carbon emissions.  That’s a big win for all of us.  I’m not in a position to tell someone which electric eeks out the lowest kWH per mile or which model costs the fewest cents per mile to operate in their situation.  You know, not everyone buys a vehicle for the same reason as everyone else.  At some point, saving a few bucks more with the right choice of a Volt, Prius, Insight or Leaf is insignificant compared to choosing any one of these over a 17mpg-city sports car.

The Volt happens to offer great fuel economy in a great looking package, inside and out.  The hi-tech dash has a lot of appeal, too.  For those that have the money to spend and must buy a status symbol, the Volt offers something we haven’t had in the past: a status symbol that sips gas.  What I’d like to see is the Volt sell instead of some full size SUVs I see every day.  The ones that clutter the morning and evening commute with only the driver inside.  The same ones that never tow, never go offroad and never carry more than a few passengers.  Really, it’s great to have something like the eye-catching Volt to compete for an “ego” sale with any trendy sports car, luxury car, SUV or truck that can barely muster 20mpg highway, let alone city.  People bragging about 250+ miles per gallon instead of 250+ horsepower.  That’s the real goal. 

For pricing information, we recommend Edmunds.com, Carwoo! and CarsDirect.com.

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Thank you to Chevrolet and G. Schmitz & Associates for providing the Chevrolet Volt for our review!