2011 Chevrolet Volt Test Drive

It won Motor Trend’s “Car of the Year” before it was even available for sale nationwide. It runs on gasoline – and, when it wants to, on electricity. Its mileage is more controversial than global warming and stem cells combined. It is the most interesting car in the world.

Whether you love it, hate it, or are indifferent about hybrid cars, there’s no question that the Chevrolet Volt has generated a ton of attention from the media. I was fortunate enough to get behind the wheel of a Volt at the 2011 Arizona International Auto Show.

From the outside, it looks like a regular family sedan. Under the hood though, this unassuming car packs one of the most complex hybrid powertrains ever developed by any auto manufacturer. There’s a 1.4 liter, 84 HP gasoline engine which serves as a generator to recharge the 16 kW-hr Lithium-Ion battery pack.

The batteries drive a 72 HP motor/generator at low speeds and a 149 HP, 279 ft-lbs torque traction motor at higher speeds. The whole system is connected by three clutches and a set of planetary gears!

Engineering talk aside, what does all of this translate to in terms of real-world performance? It means that the Volt gets an EPA rating of 95 mpg city and 90 mpg highway. A single fill-up of its 9.3 gallon fuel tank should last you about 880 miles. Of course, that assumes you plug it in at home regularly.

So what’s it like behind the wheel? You can see from the photo above that the interior is styled to appeal to the iPod generation. The glossy white trim pieces are very Apple-esque, as are the high-resolution digital gauges and built-in navigation screen.

Taking it for a spin around downtown Phoenix, you can’t help but notice how quiet the Volt is when cruising around. The feeling of acceleration from the high-torque electric motor really surprised me! I couldn’t believe how hard this thing pulled, and it really put a smile on my face. Driving more sensibly, it was a delight to see the available range go up thanks to the regenerative braking system.

As a car, it is comfortably equipped with Bluetooth, Satellite radio, OnStar, six airbags, and a 7-speaker stereo with subwoofer! The steering wheel audio controls, cruise control, and folding rear seatback also make this a winner in terms of useful features.

While the Volt is a neat car technologically, there are a few deal-breakers that would prevent me from buying one. First, the price: the Volt starts at $41,000 dollars, which is very pricey for a family sedan, even a nicely equipped one. It’s also way beyond my price range as a potential car buyer.

Second, I think that a lot of people justify their purchase of a Volt because of the $7500 tax credit from the government. The rebate simply cannot last forever, and when it ends Volt sales will surely drop. The fact that this rebate even exists as an incentive to get people to buy the car tells me it is overpriced.

Finally, the hassle of purchasing the home charger separately and getting it installed are drawbacks as well. I also don’t like that when filling up the fuel tank for the generator,  premium gasoline is required. The Volt may meet the needs of some drivers, but it’s not the right car for me.

To quote Chevrolet’s own ad campaigns, they refer to the Volt as a “Moonshot. Game changer.” For a company that has spent 100+ years making gasoline powered vehicles to produce a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) that gets 95 miles per gallon is indeed a game-changer for Chevrolet and for the auto industry as a whole. Whether it becomes a hit with buyers remains to be seen. Whatever the outcome, the ride is guaranteed to be an interesting one.

Quick Facts and Figures:
MSRP: $41,000 ($33,500 after tax credit)
Engine: 1.4L I4 DOHC Gas Engine w/AC Electric Motors
Transmission: Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT)
Power: 149 HP (84 gas/72 electric), 368 ft-lbs torque (92 gas/276 electric)
Fuel Economy: 95 city / 90 highway
Weight: 3,767 lbs