2013 Chevrolet Volt(Photo: Justin Couture)

Chevy improves its game-changer

What is it?
Chevrolet's Volt represents a step in the direction of hanging up the fuel pump. The Volt represented a daring engineering move on General Motors' part — a compromise that appeases both regulation-makers and consumers by offering many of the benefits of an electric car without the psychological distress of range anxiety. It may not be selling like hotcakes — a point that pundits are incredibly eager to point out — but as far as innovative vehicles go, it's one of the General's brightest.

It also happens to be the first time this journalist has driven a car with a gasoline engine an entire week without using a drop of fuel. Indeed, I drove nearly 600 km commuting and running errands, all without the on-board generator firing up.

What's new?
The Volt may have been on sale in Canada for just one model year, but it's already been subject to a host of minor if useful improvements. For starters, GM has upped the battery's capacity slightly from 16 to 16.5 kWh — there's a bit of extra juice, enabling an (ever so slightly) larger range (61 km, up from 56 km according to Natural Resources Canada). The system also has a different charging algorithm; on the standard 120-volt (think three-prong household outlet), the default charge rate is a lower amperage to prevent tripping circuit breakers — and causing you public embarrassment. You can still charge at a higher rate, but you must select this every time, which is somewhat annoying. It would be nice if the system remembered your default choice.

As for the spec sheet, there are new features including lane departure warning and a passive collision warning system that will sound a chime if you're about to have a smash-up. Unlike other systems, this one won't slam on the brakes. The easiest way to pick out the 2013 Volt from the 2012 is to look at the roof: all cars now have a body-colour roof rather than a black-painted one. There's also a new light metallic blue body colour, as pictured here.

What's it like to drive?
With electric throttle, electric steering, and an electric motor that produces all of its power and torque (273 lb.-ft.) from zero rpm, not to mention the all-digital instrument cluster and capacitive-touch centre stack, the Volt feels very much like piloting a vehicle in a driving simulator. All controls are artificial but intuitive, and so long as you've got juice in the battery pack, the car produces absolutely no engine noise. It's a bit eerie, but after a few minutes at the wheel, the car feels truly normal to drive.

Tipping the scales at nearly 1,700 kilos — that's what you get for having two powertrains and a massive row of batteries on board — the Volt feels hefty, as if hewn from a solid mass of steel. This isn't so much a slight, as there are benefits: the ride quality is quite good for a vehicle of this size, and the electric motor's torque moves it along with a smooth authority (0-100 km/h takes about nine seconds, for the curious). On the move, it feels more substantial than a Prius or an Insight.

While you can drive the Volt quickly in its Sport mode, which amps up acceleration by allowing 20 per cent more electrons to flow from its battery pack, and enjoy its fairly flat cornering, it's best sampled at a relaxed pace. Though range anxiety isn't an issue, GM has played into the psychology of it — the seven-inch TFT screen counts down the klicks to discharge, encouraging you to drive with slow and gentle inputs. Steering and brake feel is marginal at best, but then again, does it matter if you're spending most of your time doing the low-speed stop 'n go urban shuffle? It's all a little more normal when the gasoline engine fires up (in Mountain and Hold modes, or, when you're out of battery life); the 1.4-litre isn't the most refined motor in the world, but does the job effectively.

Should you buy one?
Yes, especially if you like the idea of going electric, but can't fathom the idea of being chained to a distance of 100 or so kilometres. But there are a couple of caveats. Firstly, the Volt is only a four-seater, and while that was fine when it was the sole affordable range-extension hybrid on the market, the new Ford C-Max Energi and forthcoming Fusion Energi offer the added practicality of a fifth seat and more cargo space. The Fords also have the fun-to-drive factor that the Volt lacks.

Nevertheless, there is still much to like about GM's wunderkind, enough so that we'd probably give it some serious thought — provided the right government rebate ($8,230 in Ontario, $7,769 in Quebec, $5,000 in B.C.) were hanging over its head.

2013 Chevrolet Volt
Base price / as-tested: $42,000 / $46,430
Type of vehicle: FWD compact plug-in
Combined power/Torque: 150 hp/273 lb.-ft.
Transmission: Direct drive with multiple clutches
0-100 km/h: 9.0 seconds
Fuel Economy (gasoline city/gasoline hwy/as-tested): 6.7 / 5.9 / 0.0 L/100 km
Competition: Ford C-Max Energi

REVIEW SUMMARY

PROS
The best of both electric and gasoline-powered motoring
Substantial feeling without being slow
You're driving an engineering marvel

CONS
New default eight-amp setting for 120V charge
Slow touchscreen interface
Cargo and space limitations