Sometimes, dreams actually come true. Even for one of the automotive world’s most beleaguered companies.

After years of press conferences, sneak peeks, and grand pronouncements, the Chevrolet Volt is finally ready for its close-up, if not necessarily primetime.

At a series of events surrounding the 2009 Los Angeles Auto Show, the team behind General Motors’ great electric hope made some nearly fully-functional prototypes of the production version of the Volt available for test drives to a select group of journalists, bloggers, and even a contest winner (he came up with the name for the greenish-silver paint color the car will launch with: Viridian Joule.)

Wearing the same exterior panels and cabin design of the vehicle that goes on sale in late 2010, Chevy says the cars are just a few tweaks and trim pieces away from the ones that will begin rolling off of an assembly line in Motor City next November.

Click here for a SLIDESHOW of the Volt

One of many digs leveled against the Volt by skeptics is that Chevy will be trying to sell a $40,000 car wrapped in the body of a plebian $15,000 compact. While there’s no escaping the fact that the car is a small, five-door hatchback, the rich details that reveal themselves in person tell a much different story. From the projector-beam headlamps and LED brake lights, to the collection of spoilers and splitters and cuts and creases that, according to Chevy, endow it with better aerodynamics than a Toyota Prius, the first impression the Volt makes is that it is a premium piece.

Inside it’s much closer to coach class, but the white plastic center stack reeks of high-tech consumer electronics, as does the multifunctional LCD screen behind the steering wheel, which takes the place of traditional gauges. The impressionist circuit diagrams on the door inserts look sharp, but are probably a little too on the nose. While the overall motif is clearly aimed at the type of early adopters who will clamor for the first couple of thousand copies, Vehicle Line Director Tony Posawatz says more traditional color options will also be available, including argent silver for the plastics.

Front seats offer typical compact car room, and there are only two in the back, thanks to the centrally mounted, 400-pound, T-shaped lithium-ion battery pack that hogs the space where the hump usually is. Remember, GM’s first shot at an electric vehicle, the EV1, only seats two, so the Volt is already twice as good as that one, right?

Well, as an electric car, the Volt only goes about half as far as the EV1, or 40 miles per charge. The new trick is the Volt’s extended-range mode, where a small internal combustion engine (ICE) kicks in to provide electricity when the usable charge of the battery has been depleted. It’s not connected to a transmission or the wheels in any way, but solely operates a generator, a setup that’s never been tried in a production car before, though a number of other companies are now following the Volt's lead.

Assuming the Volt has been charged, it starts off in all-electric mode, switching on the 1.4 liter flex-fuel four-cylinder only when needed. Once it does, there’s no constant back and forth like a conventional hybrid. Instead, it remains a gas burner until you plug it back in. The ICE is not intended to recharge the battery; it just maintains it at a level of about 30 percent full.

My first experience with how the system works took place on a short B-shaped course set up in a parking lot, allowing for a maximum speed of only about 35 mph. Driving around on batteries for several laps, it quickly became evident that the Volt is no paper tiger.

Click here for VIDEO of the test drive

Compared to other electric cars I’ve driven recently, the Chevy’s systems are notably refined. There is no lag in what used to be called ‘throttle’ response when you hit what used to be called the ‘gas’ pedal; the electrically assisted steering is direct and firmly-weighted; and the brakes feel as close to normal as can be expected in a car from the future that is still 11 months away from going into production. Handling is aided by a low center of gravity, courtesy of that heavy battery pack, and a suspension that’s tuned on the firm side.

In default mode, the Volt’s electric motor produces 122 horsepower for maximum efficiency, and is virtually silent. It emits just a quiet whirr as you pull away, which is quickly overcome by tire and wind noise. A Sport button on the center stack increases power to 149 hp for when you want to burn some rubber, or at least chirp the surprisingly wide tires that are mounted on 17-inch wheels. Posawatz tells me that a third “mystery” mode is yet to be revealed.

The striptease continues.

Intentionally ignoring the battery level indicator, I don’t recall feeling any shudder or vibration when the ICE kicked in, as you do in a traditional hybrid. But I did hear it. Just. The hum was so muted that I wouldn’t have been surprised to find every nook and cranny under the hood filled with injection foam insulation. Since that’s the one place on the car I wasn’t allowed to look, maybe it was.

At low speeds, the ICE essentially ignored what I was doing to the accelerator, which, again, only controls the electric motor. Whether the Volt was speeding up or slowing down, the engine operated at a constant speed. Since there is no tachometer, I’m going to guess it was something less than 1,800 rpm. Only a few times under heavy acceleration did it kick up a notch, but even then it was far from intrusive. Anyone who currently drives a car that burns fuel - which, right now, is just about everyone - shouldn’t be too bothered by the sound.

Posawatz says that the ICE currently works between 1,200 and 4,000 rpm, jumping to fixed points in the range as power demands dictate, rather than sweeping through it the way the engine in a conventional car does. In final production form, he hopes to get that top number down, since a constant drone at that speed could get tiresome after a while. Having recently tested a Chevy Equinox that often needed to run the engine that fast on uphill stretches, I can tell you that its not the worst thing it the world, but less noise is always better.

Except when it comes to pedestrians, especially ones with poor vision. Since it's virtually silent most of the time, to help keep everyone safe, the Volt is fitted with a Pedestrian Friendly Alert System. Essentially a low-volume incarnation of the horn, the driver can beep it with a steering column mounted control stalk, similar to flashing the high beams. The sound is intended to be automotive, and just loud enough to get someone’s attention.

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The Volt shouldn’t have any trouble getting noticed by car shoppers, and based on this short drive, the big pieces of the puzzle seem to be in place. I’d be happy driving one tomorrow, though I’m sure a more extensive test would reveal a few wrinkles that need to be ironed out, which is exactly what Chevy will be doing over the next nine months or so before everything gets locked in. That’s when the real challenge begins.

Gas is still relatively cheap. Even with the $7,500 federal tax break that the Volt will come with, it will likely cost at least $10,000 more than a Toyota Prius. On average, the Volt will use about two cents of electricity per mile, which is about $300 a year, but only if you never use the ICE. At current prices, the 50 mpg Prius burns just $800 of gas annually. If it's savings you’re after, 20 years is a long time to make your money back. Even if gas jumps to $5 a gallon, you're still looking at more than 7 years before you recoup the difference.

Posawatz counters this argument by insisting that you can’t compare his car to a conventional car. “Like smart phones that offer so much more than just a phone, the Volt will define a new category. Many people will beat a path to our door and create tremendous demand for this product,” he insists.

Since GM will only build about 10,000 of them for worldwide consumption in 2011, he’s probably right. It’s the following year, when production ramps up to 50-60,000 units that things will truly get interesting.

Oh, wait, they already are.


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