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December 17, 2010

Green Car Battle: Volt vs. Prius

The groundbreaking Toyota Prius was not the first gas-electric hybrid -- but it WAS the first modern alternative fuel vehicle to catch fire with the public, and is the world's best selling hybrid car. A couple of months ago, Toyota announced it had sold 2 million Priuses to date.

Its dominance is partially due to the fact that the Prius practically created the market for hybrids after its introduction back in 1997.

Since then, the hybrid market has blossomed as virtually every auto maker has introduced its own  models. And in 2011, consumers will get a chance to try out a bumper crop of new fuel efficient plug-ins (like the Nissan Leaf). This includes the most talked-about new vehicle of the year: The Chevrolet Volt.

For some time, the Volt has been trumpeted by GM as the car of the future, and now that it's starting to arrive on dealers' lots, we wanted to see for ourselves how it compares with the present market leader, the Prius.

Fortunately for us (and thousands of other automotive enthusiasts around the country), GM is hosting an opportunity to do just that. In early December, we attended the Los Angeles area kickoff for Main Street in Motion, described by the company as a "one-of-a-kind driving event, where you can compare Chevrolet, Buick, GMC, Acura, Dodge, Ford, Honda, Lexus, Toyota and other vehicles side by side in a no-sales-pressure environment."

I was most curious to see how the new Volt stacks up next to a Prius. At Main Street in Motion, I had the opportunity to test drive both.

ROUND ONE: Fuel Economy

Comparing the Volt and the Prius is a little bit like apples to oranges, because while each car utilizes both gasoline and electricity, that's where the similarity ends.

The Prius' hybrid engine switches between electric and gas power when needed, but the Volt always runs off its electric battery. Gasoline is used only to fuel an onboard generator, which kicks in only when the battery charge gets low.

This distinction makes it difficult to calculate an accurate miles-per-gallon estimate for the Volt, because depending upon your driving needs, gasoline usage will vary. If you rarely drive more than 40 miles per day and plug the Volt in every night, it's conceivable that you may only fill the its tank once or twice a year. However, if you take it on a road trip, the gas-powered generator will kick in after 40 or 50 miles. At that point, you will be able to go about 360 miles before you have to fill it back up.

Because of this, the EPA has given the Volt three different mileage estimates: Electricity alone (93 mpg), gas alone (37 mpg) and a third for the combination of gas and electric (60 mpg). It is rated top of the sub-compact class (which also includes the Ford Focus and Chevy's own Cruze).

The 2011 Prius comes in second, with ratings of 51 mpg on the highway; 48 mpg city driving.

WINNER: Chevy Volt

Round Two: Initial Cost

However, when you shop for the car, you might think twice when you look at the Volt's sticker price. All of that cutting-edge technology comes at a steep price: The MSRP is $41,000. Your Chevrolet dealer will point out that Federal tax incentives to purchase fuel efficient vehicles will bring your cost down to $33,500, and some states also offer tax credits that will reduce it even more.

The MSRP for the base model Prius is $22,800. You can add on a lot of extras before you equal the base price of the Volt.

WINNER: Toyota Prius

Round Three: Style and Interior

I was pleased to note that GM had not skimped on other manufacturers' models available to drive. The Prius we tested was nicely appointed, so it was possible to make an honest comparison.

The look of the Prius hasn't changed much in years, so there weren't any surprises on the test model. I was impressed with how much cargo space it has (21.6 cubic feet --and this almost doubles when you lower the back seat).

2007 Chevrolet Volt ConceptCargo capacity on the Volt is a woeful 10.6 cubic feet - barely enough for a couple of bags of groceries.

I had seen prototypes of the Volt at auto shows for several years, beginning with this 2007 concept that was a kind of shell without a real interior.

And the new car looks simply beautiful - both inside and out.

 2011 Chevrolet Volt 2011 Chevrolet Volt
Interior Console of Chevrolet Volt
Chevrolet Volt Cargo Space

One would expect a vehicle with such advanced technology to reflect it on the dash, and Chevy's designers did not disappoint. The center console takes a leaf from the Apple style book; resembling a giant iPod (especially in its optional white configuration).

Both the Volt and the Prius are sub-compacts, with seating for just four - and neither car offers a lot of legroom in the back. The Volt is slightly more cramped, thanks to the size of the battery pack located beneath the backseat.

WINNER: I'd call this category a tie. The Volt is new and therefore more exciting, but Prius is a clear winner in passenger and cargo space.

Round Four: How Do They Drive?

It was unfortunate that we didn't get to test the Prius until after our spin around the track in the Volt, because the difference was startling.

The Volt has surprising pickup and power; and because it's so quiet, driving it feels almost like you're floating.

The Prius, which has a reputation for being quiet, seemed noisy after driving the Volt (we must have been on gas-engine power at the time). On top of that, it felt sluggish and weak. The Prius felt like a four-cylinder economy car. The Volt drove like a V-6.

WINNER: The Volt.

CONCLUSION: If money is no object and your interest is in reducing reliance on petroleum, the Volt is the clear winner in this match-up. But the decision is not so clear-cut for those of us on a budget. Also, if you do a lot of long-distance driving, you will get better gas mileage from the Prius.



by Donna Schwartz Mills
Contributing Editor


Top photo credits: Volt copyright Chevrolet, Prius copyright Toyota. All other photos copyright Donna Schwartz Mills.

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