Before this very extensive look at the 2011 Chevrolet Volt begins, let me set a scene- I am in Sausalito, CA for the press launch taking static video of the Volt when a woman in a second generation Prius silently rolls up. She rolls down her window. She pauses. She stares. She scowls.

Is this that new plug-in Chevy? I nod my head yes. She squints disdainfully, sniffs and with an electric whine followed by the usual burst of internal combustion patter, she skulks off.

Is she always this way or was she hacked off at being out-Priused? I ll never know. But one thing is clear, Prius has been out teched by a Chevy. Who d a thunk that? Now, before chants of The eco king is dead, long live the eco king begin, let s get something strait, Volt is not perfect and it isn t for everyone. It is expensive, it only seats four and for now it is sold in limited numbers in limited markets (and the Pacific Northwest is not one of them). But it is a very impressive collection of engineering and technology, and the car General Motors needed to build.

What It Is

In case you ve been isolated in a yurt distilling organic fuel for your bio-diesel hybrid, this is a simplified description of how Volt works: Fully charged (it takes 4 hours with 240 current, 11 with a standard 120 household outlet), the 435 pound lithium-ion battery provides enough juice for around forty miles of emission-free electric driving.

Once the battery is depleted (in reality a 30 percent charge) an 84 horsepower 1.4-liter 4-cylinder gasoline engine kicks on to run a generator. The electricity it makes will carry Volt an additional 344 miles if the gas tank is full. Want to drive across the country without charging? You can. Since EVs are silent, the gas engine starts up if Volt is powered on when the hood is popped open. Why? It s a warning that you re messing with live 360 volt cables, and that they will win. FYI, the engine requires premium fuel.

The EPA officially rates Volt at 93 MPG equivalent in electric mode, 37 MPG in gas mode and 60 combined. Ultimately it s a math equation that depends on how often an owner plugs in and how far they drive. Push it hard or cruise near Volt s 100 MPH governed limit and range shrinks to 25 miles. Go easy and you ll see 50. Owners won t suffer from range anxiety since there s always the generator to fall back on. Brilliant. Nationwide a full charge costs an average of $1.50 (it s less in the hydroelectric rich Northwest) saving money and the planet.

A Bit of Controversy

Chevrolet calls Volt an extended range electric vehicle. Some call it a series or plug-in hybrid but Chevy insists that is wrong because the car will not move without electric power. In October 2010, the infamous headline GM Lied appeared on Edmund s Inside Line website, since during development we were all told the internal combustion engine was in no way connected to the drive wheels.

Well... that s changed ever so slightly on the production Volt, the gas engine will assist the electric motor in demanding situations through a planetary gear set. During development, engineers found that having the engine chip in to help the motor made the car more efficient. They sat on this detail, claiming they were trying to protect the technology until patents were granted. Only you can determine if it will keep you from buying this car.

So How s It Drive?

Like a normal car really but very quiet. Volt has keyless ignition. Push the button and a melodic whooshing chime replaces engine start-up cranking. A familiar transmission lever is used to select drive , pull back another notch for low and there s more aggressive regenerative brake drag. It s very similar to driving a Prius until you notice that the internal combustion engine doesn t kick in at 10 MPH.

There are three drive modes. Sport gives quicker throttle response. Mountain kicks the generator on early to save battery power if a high load is anticipated up the road. Bill Nye the Science Guy has been test driving Volt for two months now and he says the car needs extra power for going up hills that Standard mode doesn t provide. Throwing it into Mountain keeps the battery level at a point where it can add extra juice to keep momentum up.

Sssshhhh and Whooooossshhhh

Electric cars are of course very quiet but that doesn t mean Volt is anemic. 0-60 happens in a respectable 8.5 seconds and the torque feels satisfying off the line. Regenerative braking helps top the battery off between charges. I prefer the car in Sport and Low (sounds like a sweetener, huh?) because of the sharper throttle response and the increased drag from power regeneration means I can stay off the brakes.

With its massive lithium-ion battery mounted on the floor between the seats, Volt has a low center of gravity and handles quite nicely with a touch of sport. Luxury car quiet, it feels hefty and solid, even at highway speeds. There s plenty of information on the LCD screens that shows what s happening with the Voltec powertrain. For maximum efficiency, there s a green ball in the main LCD gauge cluster . Keep it centered to get the most of the battery. Accelerate or brake too hard and it leaves it s zen space.

Break On Through To The Other Side

My drive partner Michael Coates, a contributor with and I are most curious about the transition from battery to range-extender mode. GM s Kevin Kelly is riding in the back as we cross the threshold. About the only way to tell the switch is happening is to watch the depleted battery icon flip over to a gas pump.

As Michael and I gush about how seamless the transition is, Kevin just smiles. No doubt he s seen how people react and it doesn t seem to get old for him. Electric-to-gas does not feel like the transition in a hybrid, it is much smoother, nearly imperceptible. In case you re wondering, Michael and I are seeing about 35 MPG in gas operation. The generator only provides power to the drive wheels and electrical system, it generally does not charge the battery.

At slow steady speeds the generator is barely heard and when coming to a stop sign it shuts down much like a hybrid. Even in extended range mode, Volt pulls away on electric power alone before the engine kicks back on to provide electric juice. The only time passengers really hear the gas powered side of the Voltec powerplant is under very hard throttle or going up a steep grade. RPMs raise and lower depending on how much current is needed, sounding a little like a car equipped with a continuously variable transmission. In other words there s an elastic disconnect between revs and the cars speed.

Electric Cars Have a Comfortable Advantage

Live in an extreme climate? The heater works immediately since it doesn t have to wait for the engine to warm up. Also, there s a smartphone app for the Volt that allows you to remotely heat or cool the cabin. Good when it s plugged in because that helps extend its range. (anything electric draws battery power). Volt gets a special lightweight and power efficient Bose sound system.

Looks like Steve Jobs was the interior decorator, the smooth white center stack recalls classic iPods. The stylish touch surface has no distinct buttons and that makes it a bit cryptic to operate. Satellite navigation is standard on Volt since getting lost is not fuel efficient. Both its screen and the gauge cluster are LCDs that can be configured to display different info. The distinctive split cockpit design evokes both the classic Corvette and, with it s hip mod printed door panels, Disney s Tomorrow Land.

There are plenty of places to put small items and to plug in electronics. The glove box is aptly named, that s about all that will fit there. As you might imagine iPod integration and Bluetooth are standard.

A Door For Every Passenger

Volt is a four-passenger car because the battery pack runs down the spine of the car. As an average sized guy I m OK back here, the seats are quite comfortable. Taller folks will want to ride up front. Those who do sit in the rear get cupholders, map pockets and a charge port.

Volt is a hatchback and the cargo space is very useful though not huge. One writer at my dinner table used a Volt to transport a classic VW Sirocco engine block that he s working on if that gives you an idea of its ability. Under the load floor there s space for an extra charger. You ll also find a standard 12V battery back here, used for door locks and to safely wake up the electronics before the high voltage battery takes over. There s a tire repair kit but no spare.

People Are Amped Up About Volt

Aside from the woman in the Prius, Volt is a bit of a rock star in the Bay area. I was stopped a number of times and people recognize the distinctive wedge shape as it drives by. Volt looks pretty much the same in pictures as it does in person. Thick black trim here makes the greenhouse look taller than it really is. A flexible aero skirt below the bumper diverts air from flowing under the car and scrapes often while driving.

The base price of being first on your block with cutting edge automotive tech is an MSRP of $41,000. Maxed out with leather interior and backup camera and it reaches 43K. Remember, that s before a $7,500 tax credit. There has been a lot of hype surrounding this car. The impressive Chevy Volt lives up to it.

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