First Drive: 2011 Chevrolet Volt Page 2

January 10, 2010
2011 Chevrolet Volt pre-production prototype, January 2010

2011 Chevrolet Volt pre-production prototype, January 2010

Enlarge Photo

2011 Chevrolet Volt pre-production prototype, January 2010

2011 Chevrolet Volt pre-production prototype, January 2010

Enlarge Photo

2011 Chevrolet Volt pre-production prototype, January 2010

2011 Chevrolet Volt pre-production prototype, January 2010

Enlarge Photo

2011 Chevrolet Volt

2011 Chevrolet Volt

Enlarge Photo

2011 Chevrolet Volt

2011 Chevrolet Volt

Enlarge Photo

2011 Chevrolet Volt

2011 Chevrolet Volt

Enlarge Photo

Ride and Handling

Some rough road surfaces at the GM Tech Center demonstrated that it absorbs bumps fairly well, aided by the 450 extra pounds of batteries it carries compared to the same-size Chevrolet Cruze compact sedan.

Because we couldn't run our test Volt at sustained high speeds, we can't comment on its ride on freeways with regular expansion joints or rough pavement. Given its extra weight, we'd expect it to be slightly better than other cars of similar size.

Fuel economy

Ah, the biggest question (along with price): What kind of fuel economy will 2011 Chevrolet Volt drivers get? The answer is that it depends entirely on how they use the car.

While Chevrolet touted the Volt's predicted city mileage as 230 miles per gallon, that's a meaningless figure, since it makes assumptions about usage.

If you drive less than 40 miles a day and recharge every night, your gasoline engine might never switch on. On the other hand, if you run 140 miles every day, you'll spend more time on gasoline power than electric--and Chevrolet hasn't yet quoted fuel economy figures for engine use.

Stay tuned on this one, but take every figure you see with a grain of salt. Plug-in vehicles with both battery packs and gasoline engines use energy, whether it's stored as gasoline or battery charge. Miles per gallon depends entirely on the mix of the two, and that varies for each driver.

Interior

The front seats of the four-seat Volt are comfortable, though even the driver's seat has manual adjustments, to conserve electric power. The rear seats are comfortable for riders 5'10" or less, but those north of 6 feet tall are likely to find them cramped.

The 2011 Volt's instrument cluster is a single display with virtual instruments in vivid, easily read blue and green.

The center stack is shiny white plastic with (smallish) touch-sensitive buttons for common functions, plus a touchscreen display at the top. A darker shade of plastic trim will also be offered.

The overriding impression, though, is one of normality. Unlike the Toyota Prius, the "shift lever" is on the center tunnel. It's a chunky one-piece slab that feels like pulling back the control lever on some massive piece of electric machinery.

Even the switch to release the round charge door in the left-front fender is on the driver's door, where you might expect a gas-door release to be. (The gas-door release is nearby, but it was almost invisible in our test car. That's being adjusted so it's easier to find in production models.)

Safety

Neither the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) nor the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has released crash-test ratings for the 2011 Chevrolet Volt. But Farah expects it to earn the highest rating, five stars, for both front and side impact.

The 2011 Volt is fitted with eight airbags: two front bags, two front side curtains, two front knee-bags, and two rear side curtains. Stability control and anti-lock brakes are standard.

Features and equipment

The 2010 Chevrolet Volt will offer a few options, though not many. No sunroof is available, and the only exterior option is a choice of silver paint or polished chrome on the five-spoke 17-inch wheels.

Inside, an optional navigation system can be integrated into the center-stack display, and buyers can order two-tone leather upholstery and trim rather than the standard cloth. Heated seats are also available.

Chevrolet has kept entirely mum on pricing, though rumors more than a year ago set the likely price around $40,000. The first 200,000 60,000 Volts sold will qualify for a $7,500 Federal tax credit. By comparison, the 2010 Toyota Prius starts at $22,400 and tops out around $32,000.

Conclusion

The 2011 Chevrolet Volt is likely to be a game-changer. Not because it'll save noticeable amounts of oil in the short run, but because it's a new type of vehicle that no major automaker has put into production.

We think it will change car buyers' minds about the viability of electric cars, and reassure the mass market that they're not golf carts or only for short-range shopping runs.

We gather that Chevrolet will sell only 10,000 Volts for 2011, and another 60,000 or so for 2012. But its Voltec powertrain is the first iteration of a new core technology that could ultimately prove as influential as the overhead-valve V-8 engine did 60 years ago.

Buyers and media critics will compare this car to the 2012 Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid, and to the 2012 Nissan Leaf. Each is a slightly different approach to the plug-in electric drive vehicle.

GM may actually beat Toyota and Nissan to retail sales, albeit by a matter of months. It promises to be a fascinating battle among giants. Bring it on.

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