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In December 2010, almost four years after GM unveiled a concept for a plug-in electric car with a range-extending engine, the 2011 Chevrolet Volt went on sale in a handful of states. By the end of 2011, it was available at selected Chevy dealers nationwide.
We've driven the Chevy Volt several times under a variety of conditions, and there's no questioning the fact: It's a real car. It seats four in comfort, rides and drives quietly, performs briskly, and comes with all the accessories and features you'd expect of any car. And unlike battery electric cars, it runs as long as you want it to--up through cross-country trips.
Absent some of the interior styling and information displays, in fact, you might never know the Volt had a revolutionary electric powertrain. If you never plug it in, it will run happily on its small gasoline engine for as long as you keep filling the tank. The fact that the engine only generates electricity to power the electric motor that actually turns the wheels isn't necessarily evident, even from behind the wheel.
But Chevy expects owners to plug their Volts in to 110- or 220-Volt power to recharge their lithium-ion battery packs, most likely overnight. That gives the car 25 to 40 miles of electric range using that stored energy. And GM relentlessly points out that three-quarters of U.S. vehicles travel less than 40 miles per day, so in theory, a Volt recharged daily and used for a commute shorter than that might never burn a drop of gasoline.
Once the battery energy is depleted, the Volt's 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine switches on to generate power--but it happens so quietly you might miss it if you're not paying attention. With the engine running, in what's known as "range-sustaining mode," you'll get about 300 miles per tank of gasoline. Fill it up, and you can do it all over again.
The production Volt is a far cry from the long, lean shape of the 2007 concept car. It's distinctive but not all that graceful, but there's purpose behind the lines. The closed front grille improves aerodynamics, and underlining its electric propulsion, there's no exhaust-pipe outlet at the rear (it exits under the car).
Inside, the cockpit is futuristic, with detailed information displays showing the car's performance, its battery state of charge and remaining range, and its lifetime gas mileage (which tops out at 500 mpg).
In its first year, there have been long waiting lists for the Volt, compounded by a weeks-long shutdown of its assembly plant for retooling. GM plans to boost Volt production for 2012, and it expects to sell every one it can make.
The 2012 Chevrolet Volt, in fact, might be the ideal green car if it weren't for the staggering price: $39,995 for what is essentially a four-seat compact hatchback. Most buyers will qualify for a $7,500 Federal tax credit, along with additional state, local, and corporate incentives of many sorts.
But while the 2012 Volt comes with a variety of features not usually found in compacts, it's still pricey. Any possible payback will rely on the savings on electric operation, which usually runs one-third to one-fifth the cost per mile of gasoline. GM warranties the battery pack for 8 years or 100,000 miles in most states.
Still, for the first few years of its life, Volt buyers won't be shopping it against other compacts. Instead, they may compare to a Nissan Leaf electric car, or the more expensive luxury vehicles that many of them could afford.
For buyers in the plug-in-friendly state of California, Chevy has now given them the ability to gain one of the deeply desirable green stickers that allows single-occupant travel in the state's High Occupancy Vehicle lanes.
But only Volts built after February 2012 are fitted with the extra emissions equipment that qualifies them as "enhanced advanced-technology partial-zero-emission vehicles," or e-AT-PZEVs, and GM is only selling those Volts in California. If you're thinking of buying a 2012 Volt in the state, make very sure you know which one you're getting: an early car, or a mid-year model fitted with the updates.
In the end, early Volt buyers are willing to pay the money to be the first on their block to drive one of the very few plug-in cars that both runs in zero-emission mode and can take you cross-country if you need it to. The icing on the cake, though, is that the car is genuinely good--fun to drive as well as cutting edge. Score one for GM.
- An electric car sans range anxiety
- Feels like a regular car behind the wheel
- Comfortable, stylish interior
- Smooth ride, great acceleration
- Long warranty on the electric gear
Next: Interior / Exterior »
- Exterior styling not to everyone's taste
- Costly, even after various incentives
- Takes premium fuel
- Open road mileage is "only" 37 mpg
- Chevy marketing waffles on electric virtues