Chevrolet Volt, 2011: General Motors’ radical new green machine

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The new compact Chevrolet Volt hatchback sedan is the world’s first mass-produced electric vehicle with extended range. It’s the most radical  General Motors high-volume car since the 1960s Chevy rear-engine Corvair, which was virtually buried  by the then-new conventional Ford Mustang.

The front-wheel-drive Volt is the most mass-produced aerodynamic car Chevrolet has made to get maximum fuel efficiency. One aerodynamic trick is giving the car a phony grille. Air is fed to the engine compartment via an “under-grille” scoop below the bumper. The futuristic aerodynamic 1960s Studebaker Avanti used the same type of air induction.

Still, the Volt  drew few extra glances despite clever design features, such as unusually aerodynamic rear styling. That’s the way Chevy wants it. “It’s more ‘car’ than ‘electric’” GM executives said at the preview.

Rivals include the new Nissan Leaf, Toyota Prius, clean diesels and mid-luxury sport sedans.

The rigidly built Volt’s quiet interior has upscale materials, controls that are generally easy to use and front seats with fairly good support. There’s a touch-control switch system on the center console, full-color LCD reconfigurable Driver Information Center display and a key fob that lets drivers remotely start the Volt and preconditon the cabin based on outside temperatures.

Safety items include a bunch of air bags, anti-lock brakes with traction control and electronic stability control.

Drawbacks: Thick windshield posts partially block vision when taking corners and it’s hard to see overhead stoplights at intersections without leaning forward a bit. There’s only seating for two in back, but rear seatbacks fold forward and sit flat to allow more cargo room in the fairly large trunk, which has a wide but high opening.

Only two option packages are available: a $695 Rear Camera and Park Assist package and a $1,395 Premium Trim package with leather seat trim and heated driver/front passenger seats. Individual options include $595 17-inch polished aluminum wheels.

No hot rod, but a decent performer, the Volt does 0-60 mph in about 9 seconds and tops out at 100 mph. It feels much like a strong V-6 gas engine sedan at launch. There are normal, sport and mountain drive modes.

The Volt is heavy for a compact car at 3,781 pounds, despite weight-saving (and thus fuel-saving) features such as a simple hood prop rod, manually adjustable seats and no spare tire. (A tire inflator is provided.)

The Volt is lively in town, but has average 65-75 mph passing ability on highways, I found while driving it more than 100 miles on various types of roads during a media preview based in Rochester, Michigan.

Steering is precise, although low-rolling-resistance tires specially designed for the Volt by Goodyear eliminate some steering feel. Electrical powertrain components are at floor level, providing a low center of gravity for sporty handling. The suspension provides a nice ride, although sharp bumps can be felt. The brake pedal has a linear action, and the electro-hydraulic regenerative brake system captures energy for transfer back to the battery.

The Volt’s propulsion system delivers between 25 and 50 miles of electric driving in all climates, depending on such factors as terrain, driving techniques and temperature with a lithium-ion battery and electric drive unit—and up to 310 miles of extended range with an onboard small, sophisticated 1.4-liter gasoline engine.

An official EPA fuel economy rating hadn’t been settled on as of this writing because of the complicated nature of electric vehicle power systems. However, I averaged in the 40-50 mpg range during normal driving strictly on battery power.

The Volt is as easy to charge as a cell phone. Charging the Volt’s battery can be done through 120V a conventional household electrical outlet with no other appliances on its circuit, or through a dedicated 240V charging station. It’s completely rechargeable in 10 to 12 hours in a 120V outlet and in about four hours using a 240V outlet.

A 20-foot 120V charge cord is standard, easily stowed in the cargo area. Optional is a 240V wall charger. A 240V cord is available with installation of a 240V charging unit. It’s recommended that the charging station be installed by a licensed electrician.

There’s been controversy about the Volt being an “electric” car because it has the onboard 1.4-liter gas engine with a 9.3-gallon tank.

GM says the gas engine, which calls for premium fuel, extends the range up to an additional 310 miles on a full tank of fuel by operating the Volt’s electric drive system until the car can be plugged in an recharged or refueled. It says there’s no direct mechanical linkage from the engine through the drive unit to the wheels. In extended-range driving, the engine generates power fed through the drive unit and balanced by the car’s generator and traction motor.

The Volt’s $41,000 list price may seem scary for a Chevy car model that’s not a Corvette. But that price includes a $720 destination charge and doesn’t include a $7,500 federal tax credit—and any local credits it may get for being extremely fuel-efficient.

Resale value is a question mark, but the car has an eight-year/100,000-miles warranty on its lithium-ion battery pack.

The Volt goes on sale in some states, beginning in December, and GM figures it can lower the car’s list price as its volume increases. It initially will be offered by dealers with special training and at first  won’t be sold in all states. But there will be Volt Authorized Service Dealers in non-launch markets to provide coat-to-coast 48-state service coverage.

Why didn’t GM decide to add a few frills and call the technically advanced Volt a Cadillac?

“Because Chevrolet makes cars for a very large audience, and we wanted their Volt to be available to as many people as possible,” a GM executive said.

Price – $41,000 (excluding $7,500 federal tax credit)

Dan Jedlicka is the former auto editor for the Chicago Sun-Times. To read more of  his new car review, visit his web site: www.danjedlicka.com.

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