The LaFontaine Chevrolet Volt: Amped-Up Fun

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My old CEO at Crain’s Detroit Business, Keith Crain, used to have a joke about electric cars: “The electric car is five years away. And it has been my entire life.”

Keith, meet the Chevrolet Volt. It’s no longer five years away. It’s here, it works, and it’s a high-voltage blast.

I had the pleasure of driving the Volt on the Spring Tech Tour, courtesy of LaFontaine Chevrolet in Dexter, part of the LaFontaine Automotive Group.

Range anxiety has always been the problem with electric cars. Plain old lead-acid batteries made General Motors’ 1990s EV-1 a decent car — but only for 80 to 100 miles without a four-hour recharge.

The Volt, on the other hand, goes only 35 to 40 miles on a charge — but it carries a gasoline-powered generator on board to give it the virtually unlimited range of a gasoline car. Keep filling the tank with fuel, and you could drive this sucker nonstop to the end of the road in Alaska or the Canadian Maritimes or the tip of South America if you wanted to.

Some have criticized the Volt’s looks as way more pedestrian than its original concept. I say that’s part of the point. It looks only modestly futuristic — say, a 2015 Malibu. The virtually solid non-grille up front is your first and pretty much only clue that something unusual is going on here.

Step into the Volt, place the key fob in any handy cubby, and tap the brake while hitting the power switch, and the car comes to life with a swooshing noise through the sound system. A pair of seven-inch LCD screens — one taking the place of dashboard gauges, the other on the center stack showing environmental and entertainment controls — blink to life. The dashboard tells you how far you have left on your electrical charge — or, if the battery is depleted, the car’s total remaining range on gasoline generator power.

Unless you’re running at low speed, you can’t really hear the 1.4-liter gasoline engine, which seems to run at one of three distinct and constant RPM levels. GM has also admitted that little engine also supplies some power to the drive wheels at speeds above 70 mph. (Which I never exceeded, of course — that’s the freeway speed limit in Michigan.) (Snerk.)

In any event, as I said last week, the Volt is a blast to drive. Tons of pickup off the line — that good low-end torque from an electric motor comes in handy in moving this car, which is heavy for its size at roughly 3,800 pounds, since batteries weigh quite a bit. There’s also plenty of reserve power for passing on two-lane roads.

The power steering produces tons of boost at low speeds but backs off nicely to give you very sporty road feel at higher speeds. With all those hundreds of pounds of batteries riding very low in the car, it’s also a lot of fun on twisty roads, as I discovered the day I drove from Midland to Grand Rapids, getting off the highway onto some curvy lakefront backroads in Mecosta County.

With the exception of one part of the junction between the driver’s side front door and the instrument panel, interior fit and finish was excellent. There were no rattles or squeaks. The car seems built solid as a rock. Interior space is excellent in the front seats and my two grown children, 21 and 19, pronounced the back seat tolerable. There is ample room in the hatchback for a couple of big suitcases, two golf bags or a week’s groceries.

The sound system, engineered specifically for the Volt by Bose to use minimum power, was spectacular, particularly the high end. Even my old ears could hear the shimmer of the upper harmonics of strings and guitars.

The 40-mile battery range was set very much intentionally — it’s estimated that nearly 80 percent of Americans have a 40-mile commute or less. So you could drive this thing Monday through Friday, recharge it at home every night (four to five hours on 220-volt current, eight to 10 hours on 110-volt) and never burn a drop a gas.

I confidently predict that EV charging stations will start sprouting up everywhere. So if you had access to 220 at home and work, you could commute 70 miles a day without using gasoline.

This car was really not designed for what I used it for, which is a long highway road trip. Even so, I traveled 1,181 miles on the tour, using a mere 28.2 gallons of gas doing so, for an effective MPG of 41.7. Not too shabby for a two-ton car with lots of power.

My only complaints amount to quibbles. Give me a blind-spot and parking-lot detection system option, please. And how about a sedan version with a proper trunk?

Other than that, the EV has arrived, in style, and I really don’t want to give this one back.

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