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2011 Chevrolet Volt

So, can we move on now?

After an era of hype and expectation that has spanned two decades, the Chevrolet Volt is finally among us. Of course, by “us” I mean automotive journalists. The rest of you will have to wait another month or so until they start showing up in dealerships, but you may see one or two passing by in the meantime.

In any case, having had the opportunity to drive the car at length, I’d like to quote whoever is willing to take responsibility for coining the phrase: Mission accomplished!

It’s important, however, to recall exactly what that mission was.

Originally hatched in 2006, the idea to create an electric car with extended-range capability wasn’t so much about the price of fuel, saving the environment, pleasing politicians or even the company’s bottom line -- which was still a couple of years away from bottoming out back then -- but an audacious goal that, if achieved, would prove to all that GM could compete on a technological level with any automaker in the world (aka: Toyota). This is also known as one-upsmanship, and is the same reason we went to the moon and rock stars date Pamela Anderson.

I guess setting out to build the best-selling car in America was deemed too easy.

The result is a four-passenger, compact hatchback that does exactly what we were promised: travel 40 miles on battery power alone, and as far as you want after that by using a quickly refillable 4-cylinder internal combustion engine to generate electricity…among other things.

You may have seen the words “General Motors” and “dirty, stinking, no-good liars,” or something to that effect in a headline or two lately. “Obfuscate” is probably closer to the truth.

You see, all the time that we were being told that the Volt wasn’t a hybrid, that its engine never drove the wheels directly and that we were to refer to it as an “extended range electric vehicle,” a patent application was making its way through the halls of the Department of Commerce that indicated otherwise. Now that it’s been approved, the cat’s been let out of the bag.

In brief, the Volt’s powertrain has three main components: a main electric motor, a smaller electric motor/generator, and the engine. All of which are connected by a series of clutches and a planetary gearbox that takes the place of a traditional transmission. But, unlike grief, there are four stages that the Volt goes through while you’re driving it.

Start off with a full charge and the motor moves the Volt, getting an assist from the otherwise idle motor/generator from time to time under certain conditions. Deplete your battery, and the gasoline engine kicks in, coupling to the motor/generator to create electricity and, under similar certain conditions, send some mechanical torque through the gearbox to help propel the car.

Anti-GM types refer to this as a massive fail and claim it proves that the car is nothing more than a glorified hybrid. Ask the Volt’s chief powertrain engineer, Pam Fletcher, and she will tell you that it is an elegant solution that increases the vehicle’s efficiency. Bottom line: we always knew that engine was going to be running sometimes, GM just found a way to make the most of what comes out of it within the confines of the Volt’s unique design.

Is it the best way? Who knows? No one else makes this kind of car…yet.

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All of this is quickly forgotten once you get into the driver’s seat and step on the accelerator. The Volt moves away smartly and smoothly - silently, too, when you’re running on battery power. Chevy went to great lengths to make the experience as normal as possible and, more than in any electric car on the road today, not to mention most of those regular hybrids, it all feels perfectly natural.

Push it beyond its pure electric range – which Chevy officially pegs at 25-50 miles depending on driving style, climate, etc. – and things start to get interesting, but only for your ears. When the liquid-cooled 16 kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack drains to about 35 percent of its capacity, the engine sneaks into the mix by quietly starting, running at idle for a moment to heat up the catalytic converter and then joining into the fray, full force.

When it does, it operates a lot like the role it’s playing: generator. Don’t stress it and it just chugs along, mostly ignoring throttle inputs while it dutifully maintains the battery’s level of charge as the motor drains electricity out the other end. Increase the load on it by slamming on the accelerator, or going up a hill and it kicks up a notch or four. Apparently there are about five speeds that it likes to run at between about 1,500 and 4,800 rpm, but it rarely hits the upper end of that range. It’s well-muffled, and never loud, but the constant drone does take some getting used to. It’s only when the Volt is cruising at a steady speed above 40 mph or so that the engine locks in to help turn the wheels, but if you can tell when that happens you are a bigger liar than GM.

For the most part, the Volt will carry on like this ad infinitum. It’s only when ascending long climbs that the battery can drain to a point where output needs to be reduced, leaving you sputtering toward the summit like semi dragging a double-wide. To help keep this from happening, you can switch the car into Mountain Mode before you arrive at said mountain, which builds a bigger reserve in the battery, allowing the car to make it over the highest passes in the United States with no loss of power.

Regardless of what’s driving it, the car is pretty quick, despite tipping the scales at a battery-laden 3,700 pounds. A combined torque output nearly equal to that of the V6 in a Chevy Camaro helps. Top speed is limited to 101 mph, and, while good citizens of the Earth would never approach such velocities, the Volt is more than happy to oblige. Switch from Normal to Sport mode and the accelerator becomes more responsive, though maximum power remains the same.

The extra weight that the Volt carries also pays dividends in ride quality and handling, keeping the small car pinned to the road like a much more sizeable vehicle. This is echoed in an exterior design that features a wide stance that gives it a much more muscular appearance than photos do justice to. It’s also the most aerodynamic car that GM has ever made, save for its original electric car, the EV1. Relatively wide, low rolling resistance tires strike a nice balance between grip and comfort and work with a compliant suspension to soak up bumps like a Cadillac, which many people still think this $41,000 compact should’ve been labeled as to help justify the price.

The interior would’ve needed some upgrades to pull that off, but not much. Doll it up in with $1,395 worth of optional leather trim and the Volt can give a Buick a run for its money, let alone a Lexus HS250h. The highlight of the tres-modern cabin design is a flat-screen instrument cluster and navigation equipped center stack combo that is modeled after consumer electronics. In white, it brings to mind a Macintosh computer. Gray? The Death Star. Either way, Chevy has clearly targeted the kind of early adopters who will flock to this car.

Buy why should they?

First, with a $7,500 federal tax credit available for the purchase of a Volt, it’s a much better deal than its sticker price would indicate. An aggressively priced $350/month 3-year lease with $2,500 down is even harder to resist.

On top of that, it’s just like the coolest thing since Captain Picard became a Borg, and similar in concept: a collection of spare parts combined with cutting-edge technology to create a new, unstoppable force – as long as there’s energy to be consumed.

In range-extending mode the Volt does this at a rate of about 35 mpg, so, to use its power for good instead of the evil of supporting radicals in oil-producing nations like Canada, you’ll need to charge it up often -- which takes 10 hours on a standard outlet and 4 hours with a 220-volt fast-charger. Based on the current national average price for electricity, that will cost approximately $1.50, which means you’ll pay about half of what those fancy Prius drivers do for enough fuel to go the first 40 or 50 miles each day. Keep driving, however, and Team Toyota will eventually come out ahead, both on cost and consumption.

EPA figures are still in the works, but, for your personal needs, the math on this is easy. Until the battery drains you get ∞ MPG. Using 40 miles as an average electric range, if you drive 47 miles every day after a full charge you’ll be getting 235 mpg of gasoline. Traveling 75 miles will net 75 mpg. 41? 1435 mpg. In other words, your mileage will vary...a lot.

But this is beside the point, because, try as they might, Prius drivers will never experience the ultimate greenie fantasy of cruising down the highway powered by nothing but the movement of electrons from anode to cathode in the same way that Volt drivers do. Then again, what do you expect for $23,560?

Well, if you live in California or Georgia or one of the other states that offer a $5,000 electric vehicle tax credit on top of the federal incentive, you can buy a Nissan Leaf, which goes 80-100 miles per charge for $20,280. Add a $10,740 Nissan Versa to the bill and you’ve got a full driveway for the price of a loaded Volt after those same credits.

But that would mean you’d have to start each day by deciding which car to drive, and who needs that aggravation? The Volt is two cars in one.

For now, it’s the only one.

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2011 Chevrolet Volt

Base Price: $41,000

Type: 4-passenger, front-wheel-drive, 5-door hatchback

Power: 149 hp, 273 lb-ft torque

Electric Range: 25-50 miles

Extended Range Fuel Economy (est.): 35 mpg combined

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