First Drive: Chevrolet Volt Prototype [VIDEO]

We've built our whole world around the automobile, and yet we've avoided figuring out what we're going to do when fossil fuels can no longer meet our needs. It's unlikely that oil, a finite resource, will continue to be able to sustain a modernizing world of nearly seven billion people. There are also serious concerns about the environment, not to mention the economic problems associated with oil's price instability. But none of this means passenger cars have to go away. Rather, they must undergo a massive transformation.

As GM's Bob Lutz so eloquently put it, the auto industry needs to separate the car from the energy and environmental equation. The solution lies in the electrification of the automobile. There's just one problem. It's not yet possible to build a purely electric car with an acceptable range of 250 to 300 miles, along with quick charging and a price most consumers can afford.

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So what is a realistic, no-compromise solution that's feasible today? GM thinks it has the answer with the Chevrolet Volt. Unless you've been living in a cave, you've probably at least heard of it before. Basically, it's an electric car with an on-board gasoline generator. It can travel 40 miles on the energy stored in its batteries, before the generator kicks in to provide an extended range. Since most people travel less than 40 miles per day, they'll almost never burn any gasoline. That is, unless they need to make a long-distance trip. In that case, the generator provides power to the electric motor. Unlike traditional hybrids, the gas motor never drives the wheels directly.

But will the Volt really work?
Are electric cars really ready for the prime time? We traveled to the company's Warren Technical Center in Metro Detroit where we met with Volt chief engineer Frank Weber to find out. Weber has the enthusiasm and openness of a startup boss, and our meeting location at one of the company's engineering facilities further added to the grassroots feeling unexpected of a giant like GM.

We had the opportunity to get behind the wheel of GM's Voltec Prototype, which is essentially a Chevy Cruze with the Volt's drivetrain (called Voltec) under its skin.

Although it bears no interior or exterior resemblance to the production Volt, the prototype provides a good indication of the EV experience GM has in store. There was just one catch: so far, GM is only allowing journalists to experience the battery-driven mode of operation, not the gas generator mode. Weber said one reason for this is he thinks the focus should be on the EV mode, because he views the Volt as a true electric car, not a hybrid. The other reason for demoing the car in battery mode only is the current prototypes lack the soundproofing that will make the generator nearly silent in the production vehicle.' 

As with all EVs, it's impossible to tell whether the car is on or off when you first climb aboard. In our case, the power was already switched on, so it was just a matter of shifting to drive. The car features a regular shift lever rather than something more exotic (like buttons) for the simple reason that GM wants drivers to feel at home behind the wheel. Weber told us the jump to electric propulsion is a big enough step for consumers, so GM doesn't want to make the Volt seem even more unusual by changing how its owners interface with it.

As Weber points out, there are standard drive, reverse, neutral, and park modes, plus a second driving mode that maximizes the regenerative braking function. Although regenerative braking is always triggered when the brake pedal is depressed, the "regen" mode steps it up a notch. It essentially feels like you're driving around in low gear -- as soon as you lift your foot from the accelerator, the car begins to slow down. Drivers can even shift into this mode while in motion, creating the sensation of a "downshift." This is, of course, rather ironic, considering the Volt has no gears at all.

There's not much point in commenting on ride and handling, since the current prototypes don't feature the production chassis. Nonetheless, the car feels firm (yet smooth) over bumps, and the steering is sharp and responsive. Although the Cruze is a successor to the Cobalt, it is leaps and bounds better, even in this cobbled together iteration.

The Voltec prototype is 700 pounds heavier than a standard Cruze, and it shows. It's hard to pinpoint, but the car simply feels heavy. Weber assured us the final chassis will not exhibit this characteristic. Although it sounds like a lot of additional weight, the production Volt will weigh about the same as a BMW 3-Series, so there's no reason to expect compromised dynamics.

The torquey and linear power delivery of the electric motor makes for a very premium experience. As far as we're concerned, electric motors simply feel better than their gasoline counterparts. All other benefits aside, they're smoother, more predictable, and simply more pleasant to drive. It's almost how a child might imagine a car should work before ever driving one. Push the accelerator pedal and the car just magically goes. No noise. No fuss.

Straight-line acceleration is somewhat lacking, but Weber told us the prototype has only 80 percent of the performance of the production car. That additional 20 percent should make merging into freeway traffic a breeze -- just don't expect to be setting quarter-mile records at the local drag strip.

Weber told us the Volt's batteries are capable of supporting rapid charging without significant degradation (in the event a nationwide charging infrastructure springs up). For now, though, expect a sub-three-hour charge time from a 220-volt connection. Weber said the battery system is designed to perform as expected for 10 years or 150,000 miles, and could remain usable for as long a 20 years. GM has not yet committed to a specific warranty policy.

So, will it sell?
The car is expected to sticker for $40,000, but a $7,500 tax rebate will bring the total to a more reasonable $32,500. Even so, that makes the base model Volt pricier than the a fully-loaded Malibu, which stickers for under $30,000.' 

At this point in time, it's hard to say whether the price will be acceptable to consumers. This will depend largely on final interior quality and standard equipment. Although the interior of the test car is rough around the edges, the steering wheel, dash, and seats are actually quite pleasant, which bodes well for the forthcoming Cruze. If the production Volt's cabin will be a few notches better -- as GM promises -- then the price might be justifiable. The lower cost of operation associated with EVs also helps value proposition long-term. Developing new technology is never cheap, and the Volt is a very important step in the right direction.

Leftlane's bottom line
The Volt is as significant to GM as a company as it is to the industry as a whole. The company's product renaissance over the last two years has been impressive. But to be fair, they've mostly been playing catchup to Toyota, rather than leading the pack. General Motors knows the Volt won't be its instant savior. It will barely be profitable at first. But as the first mainstream plug-in hybrid vehicle on the market, it will renew the company's role as an innovator.