Test Drive: 2011 Chevrolet Volt

Battery power doesn't take you far, but gasoline engine is ready to keep the current flowing

by James M. Flammang

2011 Chevrolet Volt (©GM Corp.)

Partly because they both went on sale around the same time, early in the winter of 2010-11, Chevrolet's Volt and the Nissan Leaf have appeared to be fierce competitors for alternate-fuel attention. They're not, of course, because they operate completely differently from each other. Nissan's Leaf is a pure electric, running all the time on battery power. Chevrolet's Volt runs on the battery for a short distance after being plugged in to recharge, but then its gasoline engine kicks in to keep providing energy for the battery pack.

Chevrolet calls Volt the "world's first mass-produced electric vehicle with extended range," able to travel as far as 379 miles before filling the gas tank. The Voltec propulsion system delivers 25 to 50 miles of driving on battery power alone, depending on terrain, driving techniques, and temperature. After that, the Volt can deliver up to 344 miles of extended range, using its 1.4-liter gasoline engine to keep the battery charged. The Volt is always propelled by electricity; the gas engine is there to charge the battery, not propel the car.

"The Chevrolet Volt can be the only car you need to own," says Mark Reuss, president of GM North America. As GM describes it, Volt was "designed to provide the benefits of an electric vehicle without the range limitations."

General Motors says the Volt was designed, engineered, built, and delivered to the first customers in a period of 29 months. However, the Volt first appeared in concept form at Detroit's auto show in January 2007 - four years before its actual on-sale date. At the time, Robert Lutz - then still a top GM executive - described the Volt as GM's "inconvenient truth," a snide reference to former vice-president Al Gore's award-winning environmentally-focused film of that name. Through the subsequent four years, General Motors amassed considerable publicity for the vehicle.

GM emphasizes that the four-passenger hatchback Volt is not a hybrid, but a "one-of-a-kind" vehicle that uses a 16-kWh lithium-ion battery pack and a 111-kW (149 hp) electric motor. Weighing 435 pounds, the T-shaped battery pack is 5.5 feet long (and built in Michigan). "When the battery energy is depleted," according to Chevrolet, "the Volt seamlessly transitions to extended-range mode."

Charging may be accomplished through either a 120-volt or 240-volt AC outlet. Full recharge takes about 4 hours at 240 volts, and 10-12 hours at 120 volts.

Aluminum wheels weigh only 17.8 pounds (versus 24.2 pounds for typical 17-inch wheels). Low-rolling-resistance tires are said to be "optimized for electric vehicle range, noise, feel and performance." A driver-activated sound generator emits a noise to alert pedestrians - especially the visually impaired.

Two 7-inch screens provide driver information. One is a reconfigurable graphic cluster. The other (in the center stack) is a touch-screen display with touch switches and an integrated shifter. Lack of actual buttons (except for tiny raised bits) is not a plus. A momentary chirping sound when the virtual button is pushed helps, but regular buttons you can feel would be better.

Only a single trim level is available, with two option packages: a Premium Trim Package, and a Rear Camera and Park Assist Package.

Solid and satisfying on the road, Volt has largely familiar feel

Acceleration to 60 mph takes less than 9 seconds, according to Chevrolet. That figure sounds about right, based on our test-drive. Acceleration feels brisk from a standstill, but often tepid from 35-45 mph (with some delay before the Volt reacts to a push on the pedal)..

Handling is nothing special, with no sense of sportiness. Volt yields a familiar compact/midsize sedan feel, and not much more. The ride is generally good on smooth surfaces; nearly flawless in fact. On rougher stuff, you're likely to hear more than you feel. Visibility is fine all-around.

Quiet-running is the rule. You can't hear much of anything until the gas engine turns on, which emits a fair amount of vibration at least initially. Once it's running for a while, the gas engine is sometimes barely discernible. Other times, it's quite noticeable.

There's a lot to see and consider on the dashboard, but it's nearly all optional. Drivers who want to get the most out of the car may want to scrutinize the displays regularly; for others, an occasional look will suffice.

When the battery is about to run out of energy, a dashboard display indicates that zero miles are left. Shortly thereafter, the display changes to show the gas engine rather than the battery in operation. It's difficult to tell when the gas engine actually starts. As with hybrid and pure-electric cars, the Volt's dashboard displays related to battery power are so intriguing, at least initially, that it's hard to stop focusing on them.

Charging the battery at 110 volts is simple: just plug it in and watch for the green light atop the dashboard to illuminate. That shows charging is taking place. Depending on the orientation of our electrical outlet, the three-prong plug at the end of the charging cord - which is kept in the rear cargo area - can be a problem.

Don't expect any kind of haste. Charging for two hours produced only 8 miles of driving. Winding up the cord on the charger unit isn't so easy, either.

Front-seat space is roomy and comfortable with good support. Rear space for two is more snug but acceptable, though some heads may be awfully close to the roof. The long hatch lid goes over a fair-size, uncovered cargo space. To some eyes, the off-white center console faceplate on our test Volt looked a little tacky and out of place; but an alternate color is available.

Although the EPA gives the Volt a fuel-economy estimate of 90 mpg in city driving and 90 mpg on the highway, gas-mileage estimates are less meaningful than for conventional cars. After all, fuel economy for the Volt ranges from approaching infinity (if you never travel more than 25 or 30 miles at a time, and the battery is full charged at startup) to a decidedly less frugal figure - around 37 mpg - if the drive it close to an empty fuel tank without charging. Skip the charging entirely, and the figure is even less thrifty.

Chevrolet has been criticized for making the Volt considerably more expensive than was first suggested. The Manufacturers Suggested Retail Price is $41,000 (including destination charge), though that's offset by a $7,500 federal tax credit. Many Volts are being leased rather than purchased.

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