The main problem with most electric cars is still range – most electric vehicles (EVs) just can’t go far enough for long enough to properly replace conventional petrol or diesel engines. As such, the range-extending hybrid (or e-REV) was born, with the Chevrolet Volt the first of this new breed, loosely based on the Vauxhall Astra. It's powered by an electric motor and has a small 1.4-litre petrol-fuelled generator that recharges the batteries while on the move. The battery can be fully charged in only four hours from a normal household power socket, and, after completing a range of approximately 50 miles on electric power alone, the on-board 86bhp petrol engine then takes over to power the car. When driven at a calm pace, that means economy is the equivalent of 235mpg and CO2 emissions are only 27g/km. That doesn’t mean that performance is bad, either, with the Volt capable of going from 0-62mph in just nine seconds and able to reach a limited top speed of 100mph. The Volt only comes as a five-door hatchback and in one specification.
MPG, running costs & CO2 emissions
Obviously, this is where the Volt puts standard petrol cars to shame – as it should. Thanks to its unique method of power, the Volt manages to return a claimed 235mpg and emit a barely present 27g/km of CO2. That means its exempt from any road tax or congestion charge you can think of. However, in reality, it's not really as efficient as the numbers make it sound, and the on-the-road economy does depend entirely on how you drive the Volt. If you choose to drive it in electric-only mode for regular short trips then it could literally be weeks or even months before you have to fill it up, but if you’re a regular motorway driver prone to clocking up a lot of long-distance miles, then you’ll see the economy drop to a more standard 58-60mpg. Chevrolet says that it costs around £2 to fully charge the Volt (and only takes four hours), depending on your energy supplier, so even with that nit-picking economy caveat, there are still very cars as cheap to run.
Interior & comfort
If you want a quiet car, the Volt is perfect. Not only does the electric motor make hardly any sound at all, but the aerodynamic dimensions of the car cut road and wind noise down to a minimum, too. Naturally, when the 1.4-litre petrol engine kicks in, there's a little bit more disturbance, but it is still much quieter than its more conventional mainstream combustion engine rivals. While the general ride comfort is high, bumpy roads do make the Volt feel a little unsettled and jittery, but it irons the bigger undulations very well. There's loads of room inside thanks to the T-shaped battery design, and all-round visibility is decent - although the spoiler that runs across the rear window does block your view a bit when you’re trying to park the car.
Practicality & boot space
Many electric cars have reduced boot space thanks to the batteries being stowed there rather than incorporated into the structural design of the car. The Volt, however, is much roomier than many of its rivals thanks to its T-shaped battery layout, which allows for a decent-sized boot that offers 300 litres of storage and a rear glass hatch that is wide enough to make the loading of heavy items fairly easy. However, that same T-shape means that the batteries run down the centre of the car, making is a strict four seater with no chance of shoving a third passenger in the back. This does mean there's plenty of legroom in the rear, but taller passengers may well find the headroom a bit of a squeeze. The parcel shelf is made of a fairly flimsy fabric, and there are a few useful storage cubbies conveniently dotted around the interior.
Reliability & safety
One of the benefits of electric cars is that a reduced number of moving parts in the car that can go wrong. So, while the technology inside the Volt is still a bit too new for a really clear picture of just how reliable it is, you can be sure if there was a major problem it would have already been widely reported. The Volt doesn’t feature in the 2013 Auto Express Driver Power customer satisfaction survey, but then EVs are still a rare thing on the UK roads. Chevrolet itself put in a much-improved performance, placing 20th in the manufacturers list. If you consider that it didn’t place at all in the 2012 poll and came dead last in 2011, managing to leapfrog lots of major competitors and land firmly in the middle of the chart, this reflects its greater commitment to quality and reliability. Chevrolet offers an eight-year, 100,000 mile warranty on the Volt's batteries, with a great deal of development work going into making sure its as safe as it possibly can be. That includes the batteries having their own individually heated and cooled crash structure built around them to protect them in the event of a road accident. The Volt is a solidly built car, to be sure, and that is reflected in its securing of the maximum five-star rating in the Euro NCAP crash safety tests, with it scoring particularly highly for child protection and pedestrian safety.
Engines, drive & performance
Put the Volt in electric-only mode and there's no virtually no sound from the electric motor that turns the front wheels. Whether you’re driving it in EV mode or using the petrol generator, Chevrolet have focused on making the Volt a relaxing ride, eschewing driving thrills for comfort and calm that befits the lack of noise. That said, it's still surprisingly quick when driving around town, with the instant power available from the batteries making it very quick off the mark at junctions. The light steering and automatic gearbox make it even easier to drive, with virtually no effort required. You get three different modes to choose from - Normal, Sport and Mountain – with each offering its own set of dynamic parameters, and a 'hold' mode that allows drivers to save battery power until you reach a congested area or a traffic jam. The weight of the batteries also don’t seem to affect the speed and the Volt ends up being much more fun to drive than rivals such as the Plug-in Toyota Prius.
Price, value for money & options
The Volt qualifies for the £5,000 government grant for electric vehicles, just like its sister car, the Vauxhall Ampera. But even so, it's still pricer than other all-electric rivals such as the Nissan Leaf. To balance this out, however, Chevrolet have loaded it with equipment, including sat-nav, leather seats, and a reversing camera, so there are virtually no options to choose from because everything you can think of it equipped as standard. Unlike the Leaf, the Volt can be used as your only car, as it has the flexibility to cover longer journeys and shorter commutes without running out of juice. As for resale values, well, your guess as it as good as ours. Based on the rarity of EVs in general, how well they stand up to daily use and the constantly evolving nature of the technology, time will tell.