From the moment it appeared as a concept at the North American International Auto Show in 2007, the Chevrolet Volt sparked imaginations. After more than three years, the first production models appeared in Austin showrooms last December.
Now that the concept is a reality, can we really make the leap from gasoline to electricity? To take a leap forward you’ll have to try the Nissan Leaf, but for the more cautious but still committed branch of the alternative fuel family, you can dip your toe in the gasoline-free pond with the 2011 Chevy Volt.
At a launch held in Austin last December (Austin was also the only city in Texas to receive the first shipments of Volts and one of five cities nationwide designated with that honor), I had the chance to hit the road in a Volt along sections of the Texas Hill Country.
The feeling of driving a prototype, aka, science experiment, was hard to shake but as the day progressed, the Volt’s potential emerged. Its low center of gravity gave it a solid feel on curves and the addition of a Sport setting also improved performance, albeit at the cost of fuel efficiency.
While original predictions estimated the electric range on a fully charged battery would be 40 miles that has changed to 25–50 miles depending on several conditions. I began with a charge for 32 miles, however, conservative driving, easy to monitor on the four-color digital IP panel, extended my range by a few miles.
What owners may not realize is that when the gasoline engine does kick in, extending the range another 310 miles, it’s powering the electric motors, unlike current gasoline/electric hybrids that switch between electric and gasoline power. The Volt does require premium gasoline for better performance and maximum fuel economy.
Billed as an option to reducing fuel consumption, the Volt earned an EPA estimated combined fuel economy of 93 miles per gallon (mpg) using only electricity and 37 mpg using gasoline. Chevy engineers at the launch estimated the added cost to utility bills for nightly charging would be $1.50.
To charge the Volt, owners will be encouraged to install a 240-volt plug in their homes to speed up charge time to 6–8 hours. A 240V external charging station sold as an aftermarket item will cost $490. The traditional 120-volt plug can still do the job but will need 10-12 hours. Comparatively, the 240V plug is practically a must for the Nissan Leaf, shortening charge time from 20 to 8 hours.
Like the model I drove during SXSW in March, the Volt’s exterior still reflects GM’s forward thinking, with a pressurized gasoline tank on the passenger side as well as the electric outlet on the driver’s side. The power chord that will allow owners to plug-in the Volt in order to charge it at home, is still included and neatly stashed in the trunk.
Also maintained are techno-forward features like a capacitive touch center console that senses touch in order to engage controls and the blue illuminated power button for ignition.
The Volt comes with power windows but don’t expect power seats—the added mass for the technology was not considered feasible. A four-seater, the Volt’s hatchback will allow for cargo carrying and the seats easily engage to fold flat.
Well packaged, it also includes air conditioning, a navigation radio with 60 GB hard disc drive, AM/FM/DVD-ROM/MP3 playback capability, a radio data system, Bluetooth, XM Satellite Radio with XM NavTraffic/Weather, two, seven-inch LCD screens, premium cloth seats, and five years of OnStar.
Two available packages include Rear Cameria and Park Assist and Premium Trim. Priced at $41,000, government tax credits will theorethically drop the price by $7500.
Some may say the Volt was overly hyped as an "electric" vehicle. I drove approximately 36 miles on electric power and an additional 70 with gasoline. Real world driving distances will probably be similar, particularly in states with temperate climates. Those with weather extremes will probably earn less. Perhaps not as bold as a plug-in, the Volt is still a game-changing leap forward, but with a safety net.