General Motor's advanced extended-range electric vehicle exceeds expectations
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT The stunning new Chevy Volt recharging at the solar-powered station at the Oregon Museum of Science & Industry.

Has a car ever been as highly anticipated and important than the 2011 Chevy Volt?

The Volt is General Motor's first mass-marketed original response to the wave of hybrid and electric cars that have been growing in popularity over the past decade. Called an 'extended-range electric vehicle,' it was unveiled as GM was plunging into bankruptcy, largely because of offering too few economy cars when gas prices starting spiking a few years ago. And the Volt is hitting the streets as gas prices are again breaking records, increasing the cost of driving and fueling demand for the right product.

GM's original mild hybrids did not win many fans. So, with all the corporate and consumer hopes riding on the Volt, how good is it?

The answer is, stunningly good, with a few important caveats.

First, the good news. The Volt is an attractive, practical, fun-to-drive midsize car that is good for both everyday driving and longer trips. The styling is more futuristic than the new Chevy Cruze, which shares some of its components. The interior is attractive and loaded with high-tech gizmos that enhance the cutting edge feel of car. Acceleration is good and handling is excellent.

But most important, over three days, our test Volt averaged 155.1 miles per gallon - far better than even the most advanced hybrid on the market today.

Second, the bad news. Beginning at around $32,000 (minus $9,000 in federal and state tax credits), the Volt is expensive for a midsize car, even a well-appointed one. The back seats are cramped for adults, in part because of a center console over part of the battery pack. The brakes are only OK. And completely recharging the batteries can take 10 hours or more using a 120-volt outlet, but only about half that time with a 240.

Now, the boring technical stuff. The Volt is not an all-electric car like the Nissan Leaf or a gas-electric hybrid like the Toyota Prius. The front wheels are driven by an electric motor that run off batteries for around the first 40 miles after a complete charge. After that, a small gas-powered generator turns on and provides power to the electric motor, which keeps driving the wheels.

There is no limit to how far the Volt can go on gasoline only, although the EPA estimates it will only get around 37 miles per gallon, which is less than most hybrids and even some of the newer, economy-oriented gas and diesel-powered cars.

Although we average 155.1 miles per gallon during our three-day test, lifetime mileage for the Volt was just 43 miles per gallon. That is probably because it has been driven for long periods on the gas generator between cities where automotive writers live. Anyone who never drives more than about 40 miles per day could theoretically never burn gas - except for small amounts every so often when the generator automatically fires up to keep everything working right and prevent the gas in the tank from turning bad.

In our test, we ran almost entirely on electricity during the work day, then on gas when going out to dinner and showing off the car. Because of the schedule, we were not able to take a long trip on the generator only, but it should allow the Volt to travel great distances without problems. Unlike most hybrids, we didn't feel or hear anything different when it was running.

On the road, the Volt was impressively quiet. Not only is the electric motor virtually silent, the car was well insulated from tire and road noise. Just about the only noise was a slight suspension thud over rough pavement - and even that was less than many other cars we've tested.

The Volt has three drive modes - Normal, Sport and Mountain. We found Normal to be more than adequate in most situations, including around town drive and freeway merging. The power comes on smoother than practically any other car because it does not use a transmission, not even a CVT (Continuously Variable Transmission). Electric motor power comes on instantly and builds smoothly as the revs increase.

As the name suggests, acceleration was even faster in the Sport mode. We did not have a chance to test the Mountain mode but assume it's designed for steep hills. The downside in both modes is fewer miles on a full battery charge, of course, so they should be used sparingly for maximum economy.

The interior is along the lines of the midsize Malibu, which features a styliish multi-level dash. Some controls are operated by iPhone-like buttons that only require a finger to brush by them. Dual view screens provide information on the operation of the drive system and energy consumption through colorful digital displays. Basic information such as battery life and estimated recharging times is easily available. The screens also light up with swirling green images accompanied by cheerful chimes when drivers first enter the car, a slightly corny but nevertheless friendly welcome.

Although some of the features border on gimmicky, the overall driving experience was so normal that it was easy to forget the Volt is the most technologically advance car that GM offers today. Many other people noticed, however, and approached us whenever we parked. It's surprising how many people knew it was the Volt, given how new it is. A few people simply wondered what it was because it looks so good. The overall proportions and flush Camaro-like taillights drew several compliments.

Perhaps the most exciting thing about the Volt is that it just GM's first entry into the commercial electric vehicle market. The Toyota Prius has improved significantly since it was first introduced as essentially an overpriced and underpowered hybrid version of the company's Echo subcompact in 1998. The current Prius is larger, more comfortable, more powerful, more economical, more practical and relatively more affordable. Toyota will soon bring out a crossover version that is more family friendly.

Given that development history, Chevy can be expected to increase the electric-only driving range and lower the relative price of the Volt in coming years, and adopt the technology to other vehicles as well. But even as it now stands, the Volt has overcome the daunting challenges it faced and exceeds all reasonable expectations at just the right time.

Facts and figures

• Model: 2011 Volt

• Manufacturer: Chevrolet.

• Class: Midsize hatchback sedan.

• Layout: Front engine, front-wheel-drive.

• Style: Four passenger, five-door car.

• Engine: 150 horsepower electric motor, supplemented by 1.4-liter inline 4 cylinder gasoline-powered electric generator.

• Transmission: None.

• EPA estimated city/highway mileage: 60 mpg (93 electric-only, 37 gas-only).

• Price: Beginning at approximately $44,000 (minus $7,500 federal tax credit and $1,500 state tax credit).

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