First Drive: 2011 Chevrolet Volt [Review]

General Motors' "mircale machine" is finally here. We take our first spin in a production Chevrolet Volt. Does it live up to the hype?

You've got to hand it to General Motors. For two years running, the only Detroit automaker actually in Detroit has stolen headlines with what are arguably its two most important products in recent memory: The Chevrolet Camaro and the Chevrolet Volt.

Near polar opposites, the two cars were both ingrained into the public's conscience aeons before production models hit the road. Although both are halo vehicles for the bowtie brand - and the General itself- only one looks to the future.

And that's the one we finally drove - in production form - across the Detroit area.

An untold story told again
By now, you probably have a pretty good idea of what the Volt is, or at least you think you do. Chevrolet calls it an extended-range EV, a reasonably apt title that really needs to be explained in a few more words. A T-shaped 288-cell lithium ion battery rests between the front seats before branching out below two rear buckets. Capable of being charged in around four hours with an extra-cost 240V home charger (or around 10 hours when plugged into a standard 120V outlet), the Volt will operate like a fully electric vehicle for most shorter drives.

Unplug the Volt after a night of charging, head off to your workplace and, if you're like most Americans who commute under 20 miles one way, you won't use any dead dinosaurs. If you're easy on the throttle, you can make it to lunch and back home after work without depleting the battery.

Should you decide to take the scenic route - or, say, stop off for a few out-of-the-way errands, don't despair. A 1.4-liter, 83-horsepower four-cylinder engine charges the battery and powers (via a generator) the electric motor. If lots of power is needed, the electric and gasoline engines can work together to directly put power to the front axle.

This last bit has been the subject of much controversy; GM had previously indicated that the Volt's gasoline engine wouldn't directly power the wheels. Well, it does. It won't do it very often, but it will. If it didn't, the electric engine would drag on the battery, actually reducing fuel consumption. For consumers, it's a benefit. For those who bought into GM's gospel, it's like finding out your grandmother bought her "homemade" cherry pies from Safeway. You still gleefully gobble up every bite, but you start to wonder if she really knitted that hideous sweater with the dancing leprechaun or if it came from the super sale rack at K-Mart.

Shockingly average
Once you get used to its space pod exterior and less-than-roomy iPod interior, the Volt doesn't seem so special. That's a good thing; most consumers don't want something totally disconnected that drives like a Cruisin' USA arcade game (those who do can keep buying Corollas). They want a familiar car that doesn't visit gas stations.

That's exactly what they'll get.

A push of a console-mounted blue button fires up the electric motor, which in turn illuminates two dash-mounted LCD screens. The one mounted above the audio and climate controls is mostly familiar; A leaf-icon button brings up a display to show you what's going on with the electric motor, gasoline engine and battery pack, but otherwise the the basic operating system is GM's (very good) latest setup, which includes standard touch-screen navigation and some pretty nifty flat-touch buttons. The second LCD, mounted in the gauge cluster, shows trip computer, speed and fuel and battery status.

Aside from the entertainment value offered by the LCD screens, driving the Volt is mostly a nonplussed affair. Power builds slowly from a start, but stellar midrange torque means that keeping up with traffic - and passing slow cars on two-lane byways - is no challenge. The Volt doesn't use a traditional gearbox, instead relying on a single ratio setup that always keeps power a mere tap of the throttle away.

GM quotes 0-60 mph sprints in just under 9 seconds, although about 7 of those seconds are spent trying to reach 10 mph.

Once the battery's juice runs out, the gas engine kicks on and the Volt behaves more or less like a series hybrid. The four-cylinder, essentially the Chevrolet Cruze's optional 1.4-liter turbo minus the fun stuff, is nearly undetectable in its engagement. Like a hybrid, it will turn off at traffic lights, but that's where the similarities end. While hybrids use their batteries to motivate their primary gas engines, the Volt puts the burden on its battery pack, using the gas engine to provide relief.

This doesn't really help fuel economy; when the gas engine is engaged, the Volt averages around 30-35 mpg in mixed driving. But that's only part of the picture. Most users will not use the gas engine during their regular commute, effectively increasing their personal miles driven per gallon of gasoline. Gently driving in moderate to heavy traffic, we managed 43 miles on a full charge. A more spirited drive with very light traffic dropped that to around 32 miles.

Never before has the phrase "your mileage may vary" been more accurate. GM's 230 mpg promise was misleading, but, if amortized over a year, it could become reality for many drivers. Highway warriors intent on using less fuel are better off with a Toyota Prius or a Volkswagen Jetta TDI, both of which will cost less to fuel on road trips.

Theoretically, drivers who don't often leave their ZIP code (so, most Los Angelinos) might go months without a gas station visit. The Volt does have a sealed and pressurized fuel system to preserve its required premium unleaded (for engine tuning) without requiring a stabilizer, but the gas engine will periodically need to kick on to burn off fuel before it goes bad. Don't throw away that Shell credit card just yet.

Driving on fresh blacktop in EV mode, the Volt is eerily quiet, almost like a private jet. When the road turns rough (or you enter the state of Michigan), the Volt's low rolling resistance Goodyear Assurance tires let their presence be known.

Those tires, designed specifically for the Volt, are also probably one of the prime suspects in its rather choppy rough road ride. Combine their hard sidewalls with a short wheelbase and stiff suspension tuning and the occasionally clomping, but still quite competent Volt doesn't feel like a softly sprung compact car of yore.

Nothing about the Volt really reminds us of anything of yore, for that matter. The compact Volt rides on a heavily modified Chevrolet Cruze platform, although the four-seat Volt is much more compact.

Practically speaking
The Volt has the pace and the flexibility to be a primary car for nearly anyone, unlike its chief EV rival, the Nissan Leaf. Its compact dimensions might be a turn-off for many, however. Passenger space is tight all around; two large adults are capacity for the front seat row, while the dual rear bucket seats (necessitated by the T-shaped battery) are a tight squeeze for the pleasantly plump crowd.

Like the Toyota Prius, the Volt features a liftback design that reveals a fairly shallow and narrow trunk.

Still, for a single driver, a young family or a couple, the Volt is certainly a viable means of every day transportation. And that will undoubtedly be its biggest advantage for most users when it goes on sale in limited markets beginning in December.

If you're in California, you can give or receive a Volt as a Christmas gift this year. Users in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Austin, Texas, will have to wait until early spring. Shortly thereafter, Michigan and the rest of Texas and New York will become Volt markets before availability trickles out across the U.S. and the rest of the globe.

GM says it plans 15,000 2011 Volts and about twice as many for 2012. At $41,000, they don't make much financial sense. But for $350 a month (plus $2,500 down) for a lease, the reality becomes more palpable. No matter what, this is a car for early adopters intent on getting the latest tech - or at least the latest fashion statement.

Leftlane's bottom line
There's no doubt that the smooth and sophisticated Chevrolet Volt represents an amazing degree of advanced technology. Nothing else on the market offers the combination of nearly gasoline-free driving for most users without having to worry about GM's now-trademark "range anxiety."

The Volt isn't for everyone, but it will work brilliantly for most users who put on an average of 30-40 miles a day going back-and-forth to work. Unlike the Leaf, the Volt isn't a second or commuter car novelty, and unlike the Toyota Prius, the Volt can be a true EV.

As Chevrolet's new halo car for the masses, the Volt has more riding on its future than perhaps any car ever born. It may be far from perfect, but our first impressions of where the auto industry is headed are positively electrifying. We can't wait to see what comes next. No doubt GM will start building excitement any day.

2011 Chevrolet Volt base price, $41,000.

Words and photos by Andrew Ganz.