Payne: High-tech Chevy Volt’s lower profile

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

I love car niche wars.

Pickup wars, sports-car stand-offs, pony-car clashes. They are the automotive equivalent of division sports rivalries: Big Ten football, NBA East, AL Central.

Lock the owners of a Ford F-150, RAM 1500, and Chevy Silverado in a room together and they may not come out alive. Invite the proud owners of a Chevy Corvette, Porsche 911 and Dodge Viper over for dinner and feel the temperature drop 20 degrees. Ask a bar-full of Ford Mustang, Chevy Camaro and Dodge Challenger drivers which is king and watch the stools fly. Typical niche owner conversation:

“Mustangs suck!”

“Camaros are pieces of junk!”

“My grandmother’s walker corners faster than a Challenger!”

In the last decade a new niche scuffle has broken out in Autodom: The Green Wars featuring the Toyota Prius, Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt.

Fans of these battery-powered gizmos, however, are a different lot. Contrary to the testosterone-fueled, brawling niches I’m used to, these folks are more likely to share wine and hummus while complimenting each other on saving the planet. Typical green niche owner conversation:

“Can I go for a ride in your Volt?”

“My first car was a Prius, too!”

“Al Gore autographed my Leaf!”

Car manufacturers are horrified at this civility. Especially in a market where the Prius family outsells Volt and Leaf combined nearly 5-to-1. Time to take the gloves off. Or at least the mittens. With the all-new 2016 Chevy Volt, General Motors is coming out swinging with an ad campaign featuring real folks dissing the competition.

The campaign rightly touts the lithium-ion powered, plug-in Volt as the highest-tech, most practical green solution on the lot. Want a nickel-metal hydride-powered, gas-sucking Prius hybrid? Chevy scoffs that you must still listen to CDs and correspond by fax. Want a pure electric, 83-mile range Leaf? Hello, range anxiety.

Chevy’s bold campaign finally explains to the public the Volt difference. An admitted late-comer to the green battlefield, GM had a lot of ground to make up on Prius — so its Volt solution was necessarily brilliant: An EV with range-extending gas engine.

Despite enormous expectations and the blessing of electric-car-skeptic, car-guy-legend Bob Lutz, however, the Volt hit the ground plodding. Its car shell was a miscalculation at a time when the market was crossing to crossovers. What’s more, its styling caused an epidemic of yawns, the cabin-splitting battery limited seating to four, and it stickered at $40,000.

Cough. A $40K Chevy compact?

But an extended drive through Marin County north of San (AKA Greenville) Francisco in the Gen-two Volt is a reminder of plug-ins’ ingenuity. With its T-shaped battery driving twin-motors up front, my torque-y, silver-metallic Volt took off up California Route 1 on full electric power like a Leaf or Tesla.

Unlike other EVs, however, I didn’t sweat the trip’s mileage or check if there was a supercharger en route. Whenever my 18.4-kilowatt-hour battery ran out of charge, the 1.5-liter gas engine — er, range extender — would kick in ensuring another 240 miles and Big Oil’s limitless infrastructure should I need more gas.

Green meets practical. Is “greenical” a word?

Wait, Payne, you’re thinking, you did the iconic, curvy, Route 1 in an electric appliance? On purpose? Sure, at 3,543 pounds the Cruze-based Volt is no 3,100-pound VW GTI (the last compact I flogged on Route 1). But like the porky Tesla, the Volt’s battery is on the floor, making it surprisingly nimble for its girth.

Fifty-four miles into the trip, the gasoline engine took over with such stealth that I had to check the instrument panel to be sure. Wrapped in a cocoon-quiet interior, the plug-in is nearly as silent in gas mode as in electric. On the downhill, interstate grade back to Golden Gate Bridge, I played with the regenerative paddle behind the steering wheel, preserving brakes while also charging electrons.

I have two quibbles: It’s still not a crossover, and it looks like a Cruze.

On the former, GM Chief Engineer of EVs Pam Fletcher says the forthcoming Chevy Bolt will satisfy the ride-high itch. I like the idea that an EV will be in the new, sub-compact crossover market, but isn’t the compact crossover market the hottest thing this side of bacon? And won’t the Bolt suffer from the same range anxiety that makes the Volt convulse in derisive laughter?

I asked Steve Majoros, GM’s marketing guru, about quibble two. You should know that Majoros is an irresistible force of nature. The guy could sell a bicycle to a fish. So when he told me that exhaustive customer research has shown that “we’re past the point where electric cars need to make a statement,” and customers “just want a car that’s less look-at-me and more just-drives-well”... well, he almost had me convinced.


Because I’ve never met a niche car that didn’t need to make a statement. Since man invented the wheel, muscle-car owners want muscly fenders, sports car guys want sporty curves ... and now greens want cool tech pods. iPhone-sleek package, iPhone-user-friendly guts.

Gen-two gets it half right. Inside, Volt’s e-drivetrain marries Chevy’s e-savvy console to produce a tech-topia: 4G WiFi, Apple CarPlay, voice recognition. Steve Jobs would have approved.

But the exterior looks like Jobs outsourced the iPhone to, well, Chevy.

Chevy does vanilla. Like Toyota, like Hyundai. In a Sausalito parking lot of Corollas and Elantras, Volt blended right in. On the other hand, GM does great niche. Camaro. Corvette. The, um, Caddy ELR version of the Volt. Imagine if Volt had done an ELR wedge! I’m told there was a showdown over which fork to take. Vanilla won.

I parked next to a Prius. The owner didn’t give the Cruze — er, Volt — a second look until I told him it was the new Volt. “Oh, nice,” he said. “I’d consider one but they are way too expensive.”

That’s another reason to make the Volt look more expensive: It’s expensive. The base model starts at $33,995 — nearly $10K above Prius. Buy the “Premier” trim and you’re pushing the $40K club where bejeweled BMWs and Audis preen. Grab that $7,500 federal subsidy because it won’t last forever.

Prius, meanwhile, has gone the opposite direction with its look-at-me 2016 makeover. Maybe their marketing is telling them something different. Or maybe it’s the result of CEO Aki Toyoda stalking the halls with a one-way ticket to the North Pole if anyone makes another vanilla Toyota.

Whatever. It will stoke debate. Competition. Niche warfare. C’mon, Volt owners, altogether now:

“Prius sucks!”

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Email him at hpayne@detroitnews.com. Follow him on Twitter @HenryEPayne. See all his work at HenryPayne.com

2016 Chevrolet Volt

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, five-passenger hatchback electric vehicle

Price: $33,400 ($33,995 as tested)

Power plant: 18.4 kWh, lithium ion battery driving two electric, AC motors plus 1.5-liter, dual-overhead-cam, inline-4 cylinder

Power: 149 horsepower, 294 pound-feet of torque (in electric mode); 101 horsepower (gas engine mode)

Transmission: Continuously variable automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 8.4 seconds (manufacturer)

Weight: 3,543 pounds (six-speed automatic as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA 106 MPGe (combined electric/gas); 43 city/42 mpg highway/42 mpg (gas engine only)

Report card

Highs: Console tech-topia; Regen paddle

Lows: Looks like a Cruze; Priced like a BMW


Grading scale

Excellent ★★★★

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Fair ★★

Poor ★