What Improvements Does the Chevrolet Volt Need?

Yesterday, we posted a review of the 2012 Chevrolet Volt, a car that is controversial for a number of reasons, from GM’s bailout, to the huge expectations heaped on the car, to the giant pre-release hype that GM built for it.  I thought it might be interesting to look at what the Volt might need in order to be more successful in the marketplace.

I still feel that the Volt (or something conceptually similar) is the future of transportation, at least in the medium term. I still feel that the Volt is over-engineered and very, very well integrated. Transitions between driving modes are seamless. However, for the car to be commercially successful, it needs a few key improvements.

First, it needs more EV range.
The 2013 Volt will have an additional three miles of EV driving per charge, which means I probably would have made it the whole way home on battery power that day had I been driving a 2013 rather than a 2012 Volt. But it needs more than three miles. Try fifteen or twenty more miles and then we’re talking. Though the majority of people commute less than 40 miles per day, there are plenty of us who commute more than 40 miles daily, and we’d like to avoid gasoline too. The 2013 Volt’s improvement comes from battery pack design (increasing its capacity from the 2011/2012 car’s 16 kWh to 16.5 kWh, but the battery pack can’t reasonably take more of the car’s size and weight than it already does (it weighs over 400 pounds and eats into cargo and passenger space in a big way.)

GM is being very conservative with the Volt’s battery by not allowing it to fully deplete or to be fully charged. I suspect that if GM determines that Volt battery service life turns out to be better than projected, GM will offer a software update to loosen the battery restrictions. Allowing the battery to use more than the current 10 or 11 kWh of its 16.5 kWh battery could significantly improve the Volt’s EV range. Of course, if the battery’s service life is less than expected, GM may be forced to pull a Honda Civic Hybrid move, offering an update that makes the battery’s life easier but making the engine run more.

Second, the Volt needs to be more economical in range-extended mode (when the battery pack is depleted and the ICE is powering the car).
There are any number of hybrids and diesels that can top the Volt’s approximately 35 mile per gallon economy in range-extended mode, so it would help for the Volt’s engineers to figure out a way to keep ICE economy as a primary concern just as they obviously put EV range as a primary concern

Third, it needs to be cheaper.
The first and second points together would have a major positive impact on the car’s usefuless. However, there’s one other factor that is not in the Volt’s favor, but could easily torpedo any hope of building sales volume more quickly: price. Quite simply, the Volt is too expensive. That the Volt is selling as slowly as it is despite a $7,500 Federal tax credit and numerous state incentives (in my state of Pennsylvania, there is an additional $3,500 tax credit, which would knock a total of $11,000 off the price – some states are even more generous) should be enough evidence that the car is too expensive. After all, you can literally buy a nicely-kitted Cruze, which drives much better andgets better highway fuel economy and can run on regular fuel rather than the Volt’s required premium unleaded, for about half the price before the Volt’s tax credits.

It’s well known that Toyota absorbed losses on the Prius for years before volumes built sufficiently to the point that the Prius became a profitable (and best-selling) member of the global Toyota lineup. Is the kind of short-sighted, quarter-to-quarter thinking that ran rampant throughout “old GM” preventing the Volt from selling at a more attractive price in its early years? The Volt right now is basically a $20,000 car with a $20,000 drivetrain. Looking at it from that perspective, there is really no economic argument in favor of Volt ownership.

Fourth, the Volt needs more passenger space.
The Volt is not a large car.  Yet engineering requires that it have a large, T-shaped battery that cuts through the cabin (and prevents installation of a rear-center seat).  Further, the battery then stops imposing upon passenger space and begins taking away cargo space at the front of the cargo area (immediately behind the rear seats).  I don’t think the plug-in Fusion is going to seat only four people, so why does the Volt have to?  A four-seater has much more limited appeal than does a five-seater, even if the fifth seat isn’t regularly used it’s nice to know that it’s there just in case.

Finally, we need far better EV charging infrastructure.
Finally, it became obvious to me during my sojourn to New England that EV charging infrastructure is far too sparse for someone to depend on an EV as anything other than an around-town errand car, or possibly a commuter car if you don’t have a long commute. GM needs to partner with other car companies, or electric utilities, or both, and in a big and dramatic fashion, to significantly expand EV charging infrastructure throughout the US. The trickle of EV charging areas is unacceptable and is doing its share to also damage EV sales prospects.

Wrapping Up
If there ever is a second-generation Volt, I’m sure it will be cheaper, more efficient, and have longer range. But some of these questions should be addressed during the car’s first generation to ensure that a second generation even sees the light of day. I still really like the Volt, but the car has some fundamental issues that need to be addressed if it’s ever going to be more than a niche vehicle that people stare at for purely the novelty of the thing. If I was buying an EV today, I’d probably still buy a Volt, despite its flaws, because it’s less limiting than pure EVs. But with a plug-in Ford Fusion around the corner that promises better efficiency and more interior space than the Volt, GM needs to step up its game.

Author: Chris Haak

Chris is Autosavant's Managing Editor. He has a lifelong love of everything automotive, having grown up as the son of a car dealer. A married father of two sons, Chris is also in the process of indoctrinating them into the world of cars and trucks.

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3 Comments

  1. Not sure why every automaker is marketing these high tech cars in their mass market brands. They should be targeting them for the luxury market and designing them as such. That way the pricing makes more sense and there aren’t the comparisons like Cruze/Volt.

  2. Yup. The Volt should’ve started life as the Buick Electra imho

  3. 2b2, I like the idea, and of course the name would have been perfect. What a shame.

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