Pauls Valley, Oklahoma — After driving the Chevy Volt for a couple of hours last year, I came away with one overriding impression: it's an engineering masterpiece.
In case you haven't heard about it yet, the Volt is an electric car that can drive up to 40 miles before it needs to be charged. But, unlike other electric cars, the Volt also has a gasoline engine that can keep you going after the battery power runs out.
Basically, it's an electric car for short trips and a gas-powered car for long ones.
Recently, though, I had the chance to drive a Volt for a full week to see what it's like in real life, warts and all.
The verdict? It doesn't have many warts.
One of the best things I noticed my first time piloting the Volt was how enjoyable it was to drive. Unlike most eco-friendly cars, the Volt
is actually quick — accelerating like a silent, torquey freight train. My impression of the Volt as a true driver's car was only reinforced after spending more time with it.
When you stomp the gas pedal in a Volt, you don't hear a screaming powerplant under the hood, but boy do you feel it. It whooshes forward
without making a sound, pushing you back into the seat like a miniature, electric-powered Corvette.
OK, maybe Corvette is an exaggeration, but not by much.
The Volt is not a sports car, but it does leave the impression that it's designed by people who know what a sports car ought to feel like.
There's a real connection with the road in this car, a strangely pleasant feeling considering how alien the Volt really is.
Its looks are just as oddly ordinary.
The Volt has a body similar to any other newish Chevy. Sure, car people know exactly what it is, but the average driver doesn't have a clue what a freaky car the Volt is when it pulls up beside them. It's an extremely rare, unusual and revolutionary car, but its ordinary body means it never gets too much attention.
It's what's under the skin that makes the Volt different.
This car has a massive lithium ion battery pack that forces some compromises. It doesn't have a middle seat in back, for example, and cargo space isn't quite as big as you'd normally expect in a hatchback like this.
Under the hood, the Volt looks like something designed by NASA. There are brightly colored, high-voltage electrical lines routed around the
engine bay like neon snakes. It has a small gasoline engine like a normal car, but it also has things that aren't so familiar, such as a
"drive unit" that houses the electric motors and AC/DC power conversion.
One of my few disappointments driving the Volt was how I never got used to all the buttons on the dash.
The Volt uses touch-sensitive buttons, sort of like an iPhone, to control everything from the radio station to the air conditioning
temperature. That's cool except for the fact that all the buttons are labeled in very small type, which makes it tough to drive along and
find the one stupid button you're looking for without wrecking.
Even after a week, I wasn't used to it. Maybe after a few months I'd be more comfortable with the layout, but I can't help but think it's a
design flaw that ought to be improved on future Volts, no matter the "wow" factor of the nifty buttons.
Charging the Volt was surprisingly anticlimactic. It comes with a cord that lets you plug it into an ordinary household electrical outlet, which provides a full charge in about 10 hours.
If you want a faster charge — say, about three hours — you can have a special high-voltage charger installed at your house.
For me, the 40-mile electrical range wasn't a problem. Most days, when I would just drive to and from the office, I didn't use a drop of
gasoline because the electric charge was more than sufficient.
A few days, when I'd have to leave town and drive more than 40 miles, the gasoline engine would kick in to keep me going. It starts up so
silently that you can hardly hear it come on. In fact, the most obvious way to know you're using gasoline is to watch the dash. It changes the digital display when the engine turns on, even if you never hear the engine fire up.
Overall, I can't help but think this car represents the future of the automobile. It's a huge step toward eliminating America's dependence
on oil, and it's so much fun to drive that I hate to see it leave my driveway after a week — something I can't say about most eco-cars.
In fact, other than the slightly annoying buttons on the dash, the Volt only has one downside: General Motors can't build it fast enough.
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What was tested?
2011 Chevrolet Volt ($40,280). Options: Premium trim package ($1,395), paint upgrade ($995). Price as tested (including $720 destination
Why buy it?
It's an engineering marvel and a great car to drive. Even beyond the futuristic electric drive system, it's fast, quiet and comfortable. The electric range is more than enough for average commutes to work, and a gasoline generator extends the range as far as a normal car.
Why avoid it?
It only has two seats in back and fairly bland exterior styling. It's also expensive, although a massive federal tax break can ease some of