Buying used: Chevrolet Volt v Toyota Prius

Buying used: Chevrolet Volt v Toyota Prius
Buying used: Chevrolet Volt v Toyota Prius

Two used diesel alternatives to save the planet without costing the earth

Diesel cars are under attack. All but the very newest models now face the prospect of being charged to drive into towns and cities across the country, meaning they’re no longer an obvious secondhand route to saving money.

There is an alternative, though. As the first wave of advanced plug-in hybrid cars get older, so their prices fall – and they’re now edging closer to being comparable with diesel cars. They boast low emissions, impressive economy and the city-friendly combination of a clean petrol engine and a decent range of zero-emissions electric drive. Can they really offer a secondhand alternative to diesel?

Chevrolet Volt

Chevrolet Volt

List price when new: £29,995
Price today: £11,500
Engine: Electric motor & 1.4-litre petrol
Power: 150bhp
Torque: 273lb ft
0-60mph: 9.3sec
Top speed: 100mph
Fuel economy: 235.4mpg (Official average)
CO2 emissions: 27g/km

The most well-known hybrid car on the planet is the Toyota Prius. A later development is the Prius Plug-in, whose bigger battery you can charge up from the mains offers transport without using any petrol at all. The clever Chevrolet Volt actually beat it to market though: this is a range-extender car, which is driven solely by an electric motor and has an onboard petrol engine generator just to charge the batteries when they run flat.

It’s a subtle difference on paper but seems to have a big effect in real life. In electric-only running, the Prius only drove 13.4 miles before the petrol engine kicked in, whereas we got 45.4 miles from the Chevrolet. The Toyota’s engine generally runs more frequently – it starts up automatically above 51mph, for example – making the Prius a noisier companion. The Volt’s petrol engine is both more powerful and remarkably hushed. Its suspension is also much better, with a far smoother ride than the crashy Prius.

The appeal of the Chevrolet continues inside, thanks to its space-age dash. Sadly, the touch-surface pads aren’t particularly user-friendly, and the view out is compromised by steep windscreen pillars. It’s drearier in the Prius, but far easier to use. The Toyota is more practical as well. Not only can it seat five, rather than four, it also has a more commodious boot.

You have to pay more for the Prius Plug-in though. On the secondhand market, it’s more expensive, despite being the more familiar model that’s available in greater numbers. The fact the Chevrolet brand has now withdrawn from the UK doesn’t help (although Vauxhall dealers will still provide ample support to Volt owners).

Toyota Prius Plug-in

Toyota Prius Plug-in

List price when new: £27,895
Price today: £12,500
Engine: 1.8-litre petrol & electric motor
Power: 134bhp (combined)
Torque: 105lb ft
0-60mph: 10.6sec
Top speed: 115mph
Fuel economy: 134.5mpg (Official average)
CO2 emissions: 49g/km

It’s harder to compare fuel economy of the two. For example, to fully charge the Prius from a domestic wall socket takes 90 minutes; it takes six hours in the Volt. But you get more than three times the range, so it will be cheaper to run if you only use electricity. It may well be cheaper on fuel as well, but this depends entirely on how you drive, so don’t take the Chevy’s better official figure as a guarantee.

Both cars will be out of the manufacturer’s warranty period now, but there will still be a little bit of coverage remaining from their eight-year, 100,000-mile powertrain and battery warranty. Toyota adds in a superb reputation for overall reliability here: things are more average for the Chevrolet.

Overall, although it’s the default hybrid choice, the Prius is not as well-rounded as it could be in plug-in guise. The range is too small, the drive too harsh and the plasticky cabin doesn’t feel all that futuristic either. Compared to the Chevrolet Volt, it’s more practical and easier to find on the used market, but otherwise much less impressive.

If you mainly cover short journeys in town, the Volt will be a superb emissions-free alternative to a diesel car, one that drives nicely, performs well and feels like a car of the future to sit in and drive. It’s not perfect, and some will still find diesel is the better overall choice, but for the right type of person, the Volt makes a great deal of sense.

Prices today are based on a 2012 model with average mileage and full service history, correct at time of writing

Living with: Alfa Romeo Quadrifoglio

Can Alfa Romeo really make a BMW M3-beater?There’s nothing like living with a car to find out what it’s really like. The road testers

Review: Audi R8 Spyder V10 Plus

There are some surprising oversights but they don’t stop Audi’s stunning drop-top appealingYou could save yourself £25,000

Review: Porsche 911 GT2 RS

A racing driver describes this 911 as ‘ridiculous’. ExcellentThere we were, minding our own business at Silverstone, when the winner

Review: Skoda Kodiaq Scout

The dearest model in the Kodiaq lineup is fully loaded on kit, but what about ability?SUVs look like they should be handy off road, but the