By Roger Boylan
That isn’t how GM, who organized the event, billed it. It’s just me being cute. Not quite as cute, mind you, as the herd of little Chevy Volts I found tethered to their battery-charging stations at 8 a.m. last Friday, when I arrived to participate in the Texas leg of the nationwide “Volt Unplugged” media event. About a dozen automotive writers convened at The Crossings, a plush resort hotel west of Austin, with stunning views of Lake Travis and adjoining hills and bluffs in autumnal shades that reminded me—and a German-born colleague—of the Rhine and Mosel valleys. “Wunderbar,” we exclaimed, jointly. “Jawohl.” Tears welled; thoughts of beer came, and sparkling Riesling. Then we pulled ourselves together and the drive got underway.
Coincidentally, I’d just reviewed a Plug-In Prius, which impressed me so much that I was unprepared to be equally or more impressed by the much-hyped, perhaps overly hyped, Volt, Motor Trend’s 2011 Car of the Year. And indeed, there are undeniable superficial similarities between the two futuremobiles: a starter button instead of a key; a Star Trek instrument panel; winking displays of electronic arcana on the display screens; otherworldly clicks and faint moans at ignition. But as soon as I moved onto the two-lane blacktop, the Volt came into its own. Even on uphill spurts and cruising at 70+, my power source was all electric, and I made sure that some of those spurts were fast. GM claims 0-60 in 9 seconds, but I estimate that my heavy boot application shaved nearly a half second off that figure.
The car never seemed reluctant to give me a little extra punch, and with the continuously variable transmission at work, gearshifts were nonexistent—or infinite, depending on your point of view. Even with the gasoline engine stepping in after the battery ran down, the Volt was quiet, except for the wind and the drone of the run-flat tires. The car handled well, too, via electrically boosted steering that seemed pretty uncommunicative at first but, thankfully, became less so, as the drive included some tight hairpin bends on the way to the coves and inlets of lovely Lake Travis.
On a full charge in its 16-kWh lithium-ion battery (covered by a daring warranty of 8 years or 100,000 miles) and a full tank of gas, the Volt has a claimed driving range of 350 or so miles. Chevy, with an eye to Nissan’s competing all-electric Leaf, explains in its promotional materials that long trips are therefore possible in the Volt because it can create its own electricity in extended-range mode by using its gasoline-powered 84-hp 1.4-liter engine as a backup for the 149-hp electric drive unit. This gas engine, by the way, isn’t mechanically connected to the wheels, which allows the manufacturer to claim the Volt isn’t a hybrid, starting a flap in the automotive media. OK, whatever. Hybrid, schmybrid. Anyway, under electric power only, the Volt has “a typical range,” says Chevy, “of up to 50 miles, depending on terrain, driving technique, temperature and battery age.” I had a lot of terrain to contend with in my three-hour drive through the Hill Country, and I managed to eke out 39 miles from my Volt’s battery, which had apparently been slightly depleted by the need earlier that morning to defrost the windows. After the 39-mile mark, I was on gas-only power, and averaged a pretty respectable 36 mpg that way; my combined consumption came to 65.5 mpg, pretty much what I’d experienced in the Plug-In Prius, but over a shorter distance. I covered some 75 miles in the Volt, so those are pretty good figures.
Radical powerplant aside, the Volt strives for a semblance of normality, or at least non-dorkiness, and mostly succeeds. It looks like a sportier version of its new stablemate, the Cruze. My car was silver, with black leather seats. On the road it turned few heads, with one notable exception, when a guy in an old Explorer nearly ran off the road gawking at us. Evidently, despite his own downmarket wheels, he was something of an automotive connoisseur who knew what he was looking at, because other passersby never gave our caravan of shiny little Volts a second glance. And it is a little car, by the way, hardly bigger than the Cruze, but pleasingly shaped, with a double-pane rear window (like the Prius) and a sleek chrome faux grille that at first implies Ford rather than Chevy. Internally, as noted, the car’s a bit more idiosyncratic. There’s that Jetsonesque instrument panel, with a dramatic center stack in which the gear shifter is tucked away in a binnacle, like a 1970s Princess wall phone. The pushbuttons and various controls have a plasticky iPod-generation look to them; fair enough, because that’s the target market for this car.
On top of the dashboard were two unusual raised plastic tiers that at first glance appeared to have some function, but turned out to be just eye-candy. There are no gauges to be seen anywhere; display screens dance with little icons and esoteric electric-car info. Gauges are so passé, aren’t they? I still like ‘em, though, but then I’m an old codger, and getting more so by the day. Anyway, the driver’s position was comfortable enough for awhile, but something was lacking in the side bolstering, or maybe I’m a little too broad of beam; either way, after three hours’ driving I welcomed being able to get out and stretch. Overall space inside is adequate, although the immense battery pack that runs the length of the car creates a console in the rear that reduces passenger capacity to four. Still, the Volt is a hatchback, and provides useful cargo space in the rear, as well as a 20-foot power cord for battery charging (which allegedly takes 11 hours with a 110-V outlet, about half that with a 240-V one).
The long and short of it was, after three hours behind the wheel of this car I came away impressed, even hard on the heels of my Plug-In Prius experience. I liked the Volt’s performance and style, and the way it boasts an even balance between the weirdly futuristic and the familiar contemporary. Even with an MSRP of $41,000 (mitigated, of course, by federal tax credits of up to $7,500), the Volt makes more sense than its closest rival, the Nissan Leaf, which will quite simply leave you stranded after its purported 100-mile electric-only range runs out. It seems more fashion statement than car. As for the Plug-In Prius, as I observed in my review it’s still a work-in-progress, and won’t be available until 2012 at the earliest, by which time it may well have evolved into something closer to the Volt. But as things currently stand, this battle is GM’s to lose.