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April 24, 2012 > Auto Review: Chevrolet Volt

Auto Review: Chevrolet Volt

Got a Charge Out of It

By Steve Schaefer

The Chevrolet Volt is unique in the world of hybrid and electric vehicles. Unlike a hybrid, in which the gasoline engine powers the car part of the time, it is powered by an electric motor all the time. Its on-board gas engine is used only to charge the battery when the car runs out of electricity; the engine itself never powers the wheels directly. This gas engine's presence is meant to remove "range anxiety," a malady suffered by owners of all-electric cars such as the Nissan Leaf. The Leaf can go up to 90 miles on a charge, but when you're out, you're stranded.

The Volt is a compact sedan - not a large one - and holds four people, not five. The rear seat has a console down the middle to prevent that. I'm not sure why, but I'm guessing that it limits the weight carried by the car, thereby increasing range of the electric powertrain.

Chevy showed a concept version of the Volt several years ago and it was much more angular than today's car. Styling is a little bit advanced and different from end to end. Especially notable is the silvery "grille," through which no air can pass (it comes in under the bumper). The dark strips below the side windows are an iteration of the original design.

The interior is where the Volt goes a little wild. Despite being finished in hard plastics throughout, it is very evocative of modernity and even a little adventurous. The twin cockpit theme - from as far back as the original Corvette, is evidence of this. Also, shiny plastic door inserts convey the painted feeling of those cars. But this car is built like a fortress and has eight airbags to protect you.

The instrument panel features two rectangular screens - one directly behind the steering wheel and one in the center spot on the dash. Both convey, in brightly colored graphics, what's happening with the car. You can monitor where the power is coming from, how the battery is being charged, along with recent fuel economy. After every charge it tells you how well you did and what percentage of your mileage was powered by electrons and how much was thanks to hydrocarbons.

I drove my Crystal Red test car the entire 23 miles to work each day on pure electricity. The engine started on the way home. Averaging the electric and gas driving, I got 53.6 miles per gallon - similar to a Toyota Prius hybrid. I burned just 4.4 gallons all week.

The car feels strong, pulls eagerly away from stops, and sails down the road in blissful silence. You can monitor your driving habits to see how efficient you are. There's a little gadget you can set up in the panel directly in front that shows you, using a rising or falling sphere, whether you're rolling along fine or are accelerating and braking too much. The goal, for economy, is to keep the ball floating in the middle; hard acceleration or braking move the ball off center. It's a learning tool, much like those found in hybrids.

Charging the Volt is easy. You just uncoil the thick orange cord and plug it in the wall. Then pop open a nicely-finished mini door on the left front fender and plug in the flashlight-sized plug. It has a handle and a built-in flashlight to locate the outlet easily. The lights on the charger glow green, the car chirps its horn once, and a small green circle illuminates on the dash near the windshield. You can check the charge progress by looking at the dash display.

I was happy to see that I had a full battery each morning. It's displayed like a row of gold bars in the T-shape of the actual battery, which is hidden below the central tunnel and back seat. I enjoyed the quality of the car; despite its non-luxurious interior materials, it felt solid, looked fine and worked perfectly. The seats, dressed in optional leather in my tester, held me comfortably.

I wish the Volt had a longer electric range than 32 miles, because it feels great to drive under electric power. My car had a $39,145 base price, plus $4,975 worth of options. At nearly $45,000, I could be looking at a Mercedes-Benz. I assume that future versions of the Volt will increase the electric battery range and, with volume sales, prices should come down. There is a $7,500 tax credit to help ease the pain, as well.

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