Will improved styling push the Chevy Volt to a happier sales place?

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The 2016 Chevrolet Volt was delivered to Baggy Paragraphs world headquarters at an auspicious moment for a road test, just ahead of the Consumer Electronics Show and all the hoopla surrounding the unveiling of the 2017 Chevy Bolt EV.

The Bolt, a battery-electric car, promises 200 miles of range and, thanks to government subsidies, an affordable price. I just wonder if names with such closely related labial consonants isn’t a strategy for dolts.

cq5dam.web.1280.1280(Is the Mitsubishi Colt due for a comeback?)

The Bolt, seen right, was greeted with jeers from my favorite columnist, Holman W. Jenkins, Jr. This new car could be another desultory offering as General Motors tries “to survive the relentless onslaught of politicians and their regulations,” Jenkins writes. He reminds us of these noteworthy points:

  1. “U.S. passenger cars account for less than 2% of global emissions anyway. So converting them to electricity solves nothing.”
  2. To meet government regulations, automakers endure “the forced diversion of billions in vehicle investment dollars into fuel economy, which Detroit should be roundly criticizing.” But of course GM is constrained after its bailout.
  3. Cheap gas could lead to financial calamity “for an industry that won’t be able to sell its mandated electric and high-mileage vehicles for anything resembling the cost of building them.”

While Jenkins’s column and the Volt’s window label–$39,830 total price!—lay on my desk, the February issue of Wired arrived in the mail. (I don’t subscribe to Wired, so I’m not sure why it arrived.) The magazine carries a piece by Alex Davies, giving background on the Bolt, but instead of sounding breathless, as expected, Davies acknowledges, “It’s important to understand that the market for electric cars is still driven less by corporate profit-seeking than by government arm-twisting.”

Panoz DeltaWing GT
Panoz DeltaWing GT

The third point of convergence was a press release announcing the partnership between DeltaWing Technology Group and DHX Electric Machines. If you think Volt and Bolt are a mouthful, be advised that the two new partners are “symmetrically creating disruptive cumulative technologies.” (Some press releases should come with an airbag.) DHX claims to have created a revolutionary, compact electric motor, and DeltaWing’s chairman Don Panoz says it will be used in the car that his company is developing for the road.

The problem is simple. While the DeltaWing ever so briefly made an interesting racing car, it looks hideous and people won’t buy it even if it’s powered by 1,500 violet-crowned hummingbirds.

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My neighbors, who are very much middle of the road, came over and praised the Volt, even going so far as to call it beautiful. It looks nothing like the first-generation Volt, which no one called beautiful. About the only thing the new and old cars have in common is the pair of striated front trim panels, as if they’d been formed by neutron bombardment. The body wore a coat of glittering black paint, the wheels sparkled silver, and the two-tone dashboard struck style points of its own. Overall, the Volt is uncluttered and pleasant, with rear wheels daringly situated at the corners; without the bow-tie emblems, I’d probably have guessed it’s a new car from France. Specifically, a part of France where no one eats snails.

While the front occupants enjoy pleasant airiness, the backseat is tight and grim, with a one-piece molding covering each door. You’d chew off your own foot to get out of here. (Heated rear seats are available, so maybe you’d chew slowly.) The second-strongest criticism: it took three attempts to pair my phone.

Otherwise, everything was forthright, easy to operate.

People, and Tesla owners, who regard electrified vehicles as the future imply a singular driving experience, but there’s nothing Voltishly singular now that we’re used to plug-in hybrids. Electric mode takes the Volt up to 53 miles; the new 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine awakens in order to assist the electric drive, helping to provide up to 420 miles of driving range. The engine uses regular unleaded fuel–an improvement. It tends to drone at a constant RPM, and I may never get used to it. At 3,543 lb, the Volt is heavy for its size (180.4 inches long) and doesn’t have the sporty responses to match its looks. But it’s generally acceptable and mostly unobtrusive in the same way as my middle-of-the-road neighbors, even when they sit on their patio watching Wheel of Fortune with the volume too high.

The Volt is loaded with safety and driver-assistance features, including semi-automatic parallel parking (as if it has now become too hard to park a compact car). All of it adds cost, and that’s my chief objection. I still fail to see the break-even point with this expensive compact.

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I exchanged the Volt for the charming 2016 Chevy Spark minicar.

The Spark is about 12 feet long. That’s shorter than many canoes and hardly longer than most stand-up paddleboards. Redesigned bodywork moves well beyond the frog-faced, corseted Spark of the past. The newly impudent face has substantial headlamps instead of the drastic, bizarre cutaway jobs of before. Character lines and creases are quite harmonious, and the overall appearance is pleasing. The instrument panel looks premium, an effect that’s enhanced by leatherette upholstery. And, yes, my phone paired on first attempt; for podcasts of The Herd with Colin Cowherd, there was Apple CarPlay.

Even with the two-step continuously variable transmission, the Spark was fun to drive. That’s a 98-hp, 1.4-liter four-cylinder overachieving under the hood; with low mass (2312 lb) and a compliant suspension, the Spark delivers an entertaining experience. It also returns 30 city/39 highway mpg.

Chevy didn’t provide pricing information, but it looks as though my test car is priced at $17,360.

The Spark is economical, efficient, cheeky, and enjoyable. It has sold well since entering the U.S. market in 2012, whereas sales of the Volt have disappointed since the 2010 debut.

Maybe sleek new styling will help, but the Volt remains an extravagantly expensive statement for a certain kind of myopic driver.

 

 

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One thought on “Will improved styling push the Chevy Volt to a happier sales place?

  1. Our son purchased a Volt last year, loves it. It was leased and he had the opportunity to purchase it rather than lease the new one. He chose the new one and wishes he had not. He said it has lots more gadgets etc but just isnt the car the old one was.

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