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2011 Chevrolet Volt: Electric versatility

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh  May 6, 2011 05:17 PM

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(Darren Durlach/Boston.com Staff). Click photo for larger version.

The Chevrolet Volt is the most advanced hybrid ever made. It's radical. Handsome. And no less than Automobile Magazine, Motor Trend, and the North American Car of the Year jury have crowned it "Car of the Year." But, uh, where can you buy one?

Since its December debut, Chevrolet has sold only 2,020 Volts in six states through April, including Connecticut and Washington, D.C. Massachusetts will get the honor this fall, and the entire country will be invited to buy in December. While Chevy can fill every Hertz lot in America with Impalas, they're barely making 10,000 Volts this year.

That's because this plug-in hybrid has a battery with 12 times the capacity of a Prius, and until now, no one's produced such a complex and large lithium-ion pack in high volume. Unlike a regular hybrid, where the electric motor provides a small assist to the gas engine, the Volt's electric motor is the primary source of power. The gas engine is secondary and spins the electric motor when the battery dies (and at higher speeds, it can power the wheels in tandem).

In short, the Volt is designed to be plugged in like a pure electric car, but it'll run all day and all week like a gasoline car. Anything else about the Volt's powertrain labyrinth is impossible to explain without an engineering doctorate, and that's why the car costs $41,000. That, and because GM would really like to recoup some of the money spent from four hard years of labor.

2011-Chevrolet-Volt-beach.jpg

(Darren Durlach/Boston.com Staff). Click photo for larger version.

A $350-per-month lease is a sweet deal for three years (nearly matching the Nissan Leaf), but you could straight-up buy two Chevy Cruze sedans for the price of a Volt. A $7,500 tax credit helps, but most budget-conscious shoppers will take a well-equipped 40-mpg compact — like the Cruze, Ford Focus, or Hyundai Elantra — without swallowing the Volt's BMW-like price. Right now, the Volt's a nice second car for its owner's 335i.

As expected, the Volt's premium price buys exclusive technology rather than an exquisite interior. The touch-sensitive center stack is clever, but the materials aren't even worthy of a $30,000 car: Try a bone-hard dashboard and door surfaces, coarse cloth, and a steering wheel so rough it feels wrapped in 50-grit sandpaper. Leather trim fixes some of this, but Chevy figures you'll be too fixated on the Volt's dual LCDs to notice. Because they're not simply high-resolution screens with slick animations — they're hypnotic.

First, it's alarming to see the gas gauge greyed out. It's shoved off to the screen's corner during electric mode, and the fuel level doesn't budge. Even wilder is gazing at the pie chart separating the car's mileage on gasoline and electricity. After a nine-mile commute to the Globe, I took the Volt out to lunch in the financial district, back to the office, to the gym, and then home. My pie was mostly green (29 electric miles) and a tad blue (10 miles on gas). Total average: a mesmerizing 90.8 mpg.

2011-Chevrolet-Volt-interior.jpg

(GM). Click photo for larger version.

How obsessed can you become? As I played with the Volt's three drive settings, I flipped to "mountain" mode. The gas engine awoke — it's there so Vermonters get extra juice on hill climbs — and wouldn't shut off, even when I switched back to "normal." I refused to drive like this on a charged battery, so I swerved to the shoulder and restarted. A perfectly good pie, ruined with 0.2 gallons of gas.

Ever tried reading the messy bar graph readouts in a Prius, or pay attention to the jumpy throttle meter in a Ford Fusion Hybrid? With the Volt, there's no need to "hypermile" to keep the engine off, since it's always electric for 25 to 50 miles (and the battery life indicator throws out the most accurate estimates I've seen in an electric car).

Colder days pushed my EV range to 25 miles per day, and slightly warmer temperatures let the battery eke out 33 miles. During our video shoot all over Cambridge and Boston, I hit 40 with a few brief charges in between. At my non-SAE compliant home charging station, I paid less than two bucks a night to refuel the car.

Cheap electricity — and the security of the gas engine — takes the scrooge out of driving sensibly. In "sport" mode, the Volt provides zippy acceleration. It's no Tesla Roadster, yet it's no slouch, with 60 mph arriving in about 8.5 seconds. Because of the car's low center of gravity, the handling is equally entertaining, and there's good traction from the low-rolling resistance tires. Ground clearance is a little too low, thanks to a wide rubber chin spoiler designed to reduce drag. And all this rubber piece does is drag, on everything. Not even the Porsche 911 Turbo scrapes driveways like a Volt.

The Volt is also sportier than the photos suggest. Glossy black trim on the sides, roof, and glass hatch mask the stubby overhangs. LED lighting, a bright solid grill, and chiseled wheels keep the Volt out of the appliance aisle.

2011-Chevrolet-Volt-iphone-app.jpgAn OnStar smartphone app can monitor the Volt's battery status, set up a charging schedule, start the climate control, and send text messages when the battery's full. Since the app runs through OnStar satellites, it takes an agonizing minute or more to refresh the screen. The Leaf's app uses cellular networks and talks to the car much faster. Either way, this is convenient technology every automaker should offer.

Charging a Volt takes 10 hours on 120 volts, or about four on 240 volts (which requires a special home unit sold by Chevrolet). But when the all-electric range evaporates, the Volt is a rather disappointing hybrid. The issue is neither the engine running at disproportionately higher revs than the car's acceleration, nor the mild noise after driving in complete silence. It's the fuel economy — EPA rated at 35 city, 40 highway — which is hardly better than the Cruze. (Compared to the svelte Prius, the Volt is saddled with a couple of NFL linemen, and the aero tweaks don’t make it sleeker.)

But in a world without public charging stations, the Volt's versatility is its very best trait. For daily drivers, pure electric vehicles demand a careful exercise in arithmetic and route planning. They tend to compound the stress of driving. And while most of us follow routine, we also fall on impulse, chance, and urgency on the road.

The Volt takes care of that. Too bad you can't buy one — yet.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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Clifford Atiyeh is an automotive writer and car enthusiast . He has spent his entire life driving cars he doesn't own.
In the garage: 1995 21-speed Iron Horse, 2002 Jeep Wrangler X (by association)
Bill Griffith is a veteran Boston Globe reporter, having reviewed cars for more than 10 years and serving as assistant sports editor for 25 years. He was also the paper's sports media columnist.
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AAA's Car Doctor, John Paul John Paul is public affairs manager for AAA Southern New England, a certified mechanic, and a Globe columnist. He hosts a weekly radio show on WROL.
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Craig Fitzgerald has been writing about cars, motorcycles, and the automotive industry since 1999. He is the former editor of Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car.
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Keith Griffin is president of the New England Motor Press Association and edits the used car section on About.com. He also writes for the Hartford Business Journal and various weekly newspapers in Connecticut.
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