Chevy Volt: Still A High Tech Tour De Force

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I spent a very happy week with the Chevrolet Volt during the Spring 2011 tech tour.

On a recent weekend, thanks to the folks at LaFontaine Chevrolet in Dexter, I got to rekindle the relationship, and if anything, this car has gotten even better over the course of a year.

The rap on electric cars has always been that their range is so limited, you’d have to tow a generator behind you. Well, the folks at Chevrolet figured out a way to put it under the hood, in one very attractive, great-driving (if rather pricey) package.

What Chevrolet has not done, I don’t think, is communicate how this car really works. When driving the Volt, I got lots of compliments on its futuristic looks. But I also got questions like, “How far can you drive before you stop to recharge?”

That’s the beauty of the Volt. You can charge it up — four hours on 220-volt power, about 10 hours on standard 110-volt household current — and go about 40 miles.

But after that, you don’t have to stop. The little 1.4-liter gasoline engine under the hood kicks on and charges the battery. (I called the engine ‘the sewing machine,’ for its rather whiny whir.) You can then drive as far as you want. You just have to keep filling up the 9-gallon gas tank. Heck, assuming you could get decent gas, you could drive it to Alaska, or Tierra del Fuego. But sticking around Detroit, in gasoline-powered mode, I got 44 mpg,  excellent mileage for a roomy four-passenger car with this much zip.

And yes, this car has a lot of zip, particularly off the line. It’s an electric vehicle, so all of its torque is available from a dead stop. Depress the accelerator, prepare for fun — there’s more than adequate power here for initial acceleration and passing.

And those hundreds of pounds of batteries in the car are in a T-shaped envelope between the front seats and across the bottom of the back seats — meaning, at the bottom of the car. That means the car feels pretty much glued to the road, even in some fairly aggressive maneuvering.

Inside, the Volt has cockpit-style seating for all four seats, which are firm and comfortable. There’s an excellent custom-designed sound system. Everything’s quiet and comfortable.

The instrument panel takes some getting used to, although I won’t savage it as much as some critics have. Speed, fuel range, charge and gasoline level are all in a video screen over the steering wheel, along with a tutorial on green driving that’s meant to keep your lead foot off the accelerator pedal. Other information, like charge, radio, navigation and climate functions, are in a screen in the center stack, over an array of 32 buttons that admittedly is pretty busy. There are simple, old-fashioned knobs for adjusting volume and tuning of the radio, however.

The one thing I will wish for is a Volt with a proper trunk, which will maximize the rather limited luggage area behind the back seat.

I put about 300 miles on the Volt over the wekend, using a little over four gallons of gasoline. Effective MPG, about 69.

Chevrolet is making some pretty aggressive lease offers on the Volt, including one for less than $400 a month. For a $40,000 car that’s pretty phenomenal. If you can get a 240-volt charger installed at your house, and if your weekday driving pattern is 40 miles a day or less, that’s a pretty cool price for going completely gasoline-free — yet still having a car capable of that 500-mile weekend roundtrip up to Mackinac.

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