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How the Chevrolet Volt is a different kind of electric car

This feature was produced in collaboration between Vox Creative and General Motors Company. Vox Media editorial staff was not involved in the creation or production of this content.

Electric cars used to be a green-tech dream. Now they’re an attainable reality: Estimates show global sales growing to 6.6 million electric cars per year by 2020, compared to just under 1 million sold last year.

Range anxiety means planning trips around charging.

It’s taken the public a long time to embrace the electric vehicle. The main reason? Range anxiety. With a pure electric vehicle, how far you can go depends entirely on how easy it is to charge the car — and drivers inevitably have to plan their trips around these charging events.

But extended-range technology has changed the game, and the first car on the market with that technology came from General Motors. Not quite a pure electric vehicle and not a hybrid, the Chevrolet Volt, introduced in 2010, was the first commercially available plug-in to use both an electric motor and a gasoline-powered generator. And the second-generation Volt, all-new for 2016, is even more impressive: Its advanced batteries offer drivers up to 53 miles of pure electric driving, and its 1.5-liter gas-powered generator can power the battery for a total range of up to 420 miles on a full charge and full tank of gas. (The EPA-estimated 53-mile EV range is based on a 106 MPGe combined city/highway on electric. The 367-mile extended range is based on 42 MPG combined city/highway on gas. Actual range varies with conditions.)

"I think you are going to see an inflection point at the time when the Volt was introduced," says Pam Fletcher, executive chief engineer for electrified vehicles at Chevrolet, about the rapidly increasing pace of electric car sales. "Its place in history will be well defined."

At the turn of the 20th century, electric cars were far more popular than their fuel-powered counterparts. They were cleaner, quieter, and made for an easier ride. Then gas-powered vehicles became widely available and affordable, and that was the end of electric.

Or, at least, the end for close to a century. In the last 15 years, automakers — who never stopped tinkering with electric vehicle technology — have made extraordinary strides. Today, pure electric vehicles go farther than ever before on a single charge, and hybrid cars that use both electricity and gasoline are increasingly fuel-efficient.

The first Volt was revolutionary. Its extended-range technology turns the car from a pure electric vehicle to one that uses fuel to maintain charge in the battery, making range anxiety a thing of the past.

The gas-powered generator in Volt charges the battery, which keeps the electric motor running.

"When the Volt was conceived, it was conceived to be a car that could satisfy any owner’s needs. Chevrolet created a new segment of vehicle that allows people to adopt an EV with no compromise," says Fletcher.

The numbers are impressive: Volt owners have driven more than 700 million pure electric miles since 2010, and the next-generation Volt will only increase that. Chevrolet expects Volt owners to go more than 1,000 miles between fill-ups with regular charging, and with the improved electric range of Volt, 80 percent of Americans can drive their daily commutes without using a drop of gas — because the majority of daily commutes in the U.S. are around 50 miles or less.

Chevrolet is using its expertise to innovate elsewhere in the electric vehicle space. The Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid borrows technology from Volt to achieve an EPA-estimated fuel efficiency of 47 MPG city, while also sharing the Volt drivetrain. And Chevrolet’s 2017 Bolt EV is an affordable all-electric car with an estimated range of more than 200 miles on a full charge. (That's based on GM testing, as EPA estimates are not yet available. Actual range varies with conditions. The Bolt EV will be available late 2016.) The Bolt EV will be priced as low as $30,000, after a federal tax credit. (That price factors in a full $7,500 tax credit. MSRP is $37,500, including DFC, with tax, title, license, and dealer fees extra. The federal tax credit can range from $0 to $7,500, depending on your tax situation. Your tax professional can explain the details.)

How does extended-range technology work?

Volt is a plug-in, meaning owners can charge the battery using the standard 120-volt cord that can plug into any outlet or with the available 240-volt home charging station. Volt uses two electric motors that work in unison to operate efficiently: depending on speed, load, and other factors, one or both may kick in to power the car.

When the battery depletes, the gas-powered generator kicks in to continuously provide power. If you can’t charge, you can simply go to a gas station and fill up. "Owners can go anywhere, anytime, without having to worry about whether they have enough power to go through the Rocky Mountains or on a spontaneous weekend getaway," says Larry Nitz, executive director of GM Powertrain Electrification and Engineering team. It’s the end of range anxiety.

The heart of Volt electrification technology is the battery.

The Volt battery powers the electric motors. The new generation battery has 192 lithium-ion cells, providing 18.4 kilowatt-hours of energy — enough for up to 53 miles of pure electric driving on a full charge. The battery is larger but lighter than in the previous-generation Volt. That’s because engineers eliminated about a third of the battery’s cells, while also reconfiguring it to produce more energy capacity per cell.

Once the battery gets low, the Volt’s gas-powered generator seamlessly switches on to continuously provide power and keep the car going. It runs on regular gasoline and, with a full tank and full charge, Volt has a total range of up to 420 miles. The generator has a cast-aluminum block and cylinder heads, direct fuel injection, and is rated at an EPA-estimated 42 miles per gallon combined city/highway.

Efficiency matters too.

Each piece is more efficient and powerful than ever.

The battery delivers electricity to the electric drive unit, and the two electric motors work in tandem to optimize efficiency of the car. This smart technology helps increase the car’s all-electric range. Engineers created a kind of online co-pilot that learns what the driver wants to do and responds in a way to best use the two motors.

"One motor, generally, is the lifeblood and that one’s super efficient," explained Tim Grewe, Volt Propulsion System general director. "The system will bring on both motors when needed for the medium loads — they’re blended together — and then the system can run full out when doing the performance driving."

Engineers took what they learned from the first-generation Volt, and the new system operates more efficiently and is 230 pounds lighter, with fewer rare earth materials. Working together, the motors deliver a faster acceleration in both low- and high-speed scenarios.

Volt works smartly to conserve power when you are on the road. The vehicle's Regen on Demand™ system means that Volt can capture its own momentum to recharge the battery while it's slowing down.

Four drive modes allow drivers to customize how the car is powered for an ideal mix of power and efficiency. Normal mode is most efficient. Sport mode makes the car peppier but uses more battery. Mountain mode maintains a bigger power reserve in the battery so there's something to tap into when the demand is high, like driving up a steep incline. And Hold mode forces Volt to start the gas-powered generator, reserving battery power for when you return to city driving.

Even when the gas-powered generator switches on, drivers can expect a smart and efficient ride, with a wider rpm range and better fuel economy than the previous-generation Volt. It can also supply the exact amount of energy a driver needs to power forward electrically.

It all means more range and more electric miles.

Each piece of Volt technology complements the others, and all were designed to be more efficient and powerful than ever. "We spent a lot of time working on that entire flow of energy, from the battery into the drive unit all the way to the tires on the ground and making sure each of those different pieces is as efficient as it can be," says Andrew Farah, vehicle chief engineer.

It makes the Volt a building block for Chevrolet’s electric technology and a sign of where the company is headed. "The first-generation Volt was a breakthrough vehicle," says Fletcher. "The second-generation Volt takes that idea even further." And the new all-electric Bolt EV is the next step in electrification.

This feature was produced in collaboration between Vox Creative and General Motors Company. Vox Media editorial staff was not involved in the creation or production of this content.