Electric slide

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SHOCKING! | Of course the Volt is fuel-efficient; the fact it’s attractive and fun to drive is a bonus.

The Chevy Volt hybrid boasts green technology, but it’s also a blast to drive

CASEY WILLIAMS  | Auto Reviewer
crwauto@aol.com

After running errands one night, I drove my Chevrolet Volt electric car into my garage, plugged its charger into a standard outlet, connected the other end to a receptor on the side of the car and went inside for the night. According to the dash read-out, it would be fully charged before my first cup of coffee. Then, my mother texted me and invited me to lunch at their house — 50 miles away.

“If I go lightly on the throttle,” I think, “the Volt just might make it.”

I rarely go lightly on throttles and didn’t this morning, either. I rode gently through the Starbucks drive-through, but after that, I made myself giddy accelerating with whooshing abandon and

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HYBRIDIZED | The display makes it clear when you’re driving on electric power and when you transition to gas.

 

cruising along at 70 mph.

Exactly 41 miles into my amusement, the battery pooped out. And I didn’t care. The car changed its display screen priority from battery range to a gas gauge, woke the 1.4 liter, four-cylinder engine, and kept whirring along. When other electric cars, including The Holy Tesla, run out of power, you walk or call for a flat bed. I click to Elvis Radio and enjoy a sunny drive. Welcome to the future.

Anybody of my generation who drives the Volt will instantly transport themselves to the ‘80s and the movie Back to the Future. In case you’ve lost track of time, the DeLorean is now as old as the ‘50s cars were then; we’re only four years from the future depicted in Part II. Wall-sized televisions have come, we can video chat anywhere and libraries are obsolete. If you could have told Marty McFly about the Internet, iPads, or this car, his head would have spun off. Volt looks the part of a sci-fi star.

No other General Motors product spent more time in a wind tunnel than the Volt, which explains its perfectly honed, streamlined shape. It may not be as sexy as the original 2007 concept car, but it is much roomier, persuades wind with Chevy’s trademark crossbar grille, looks sharp in its creases, rolls on 17-in. polished alloy wheels, and pays homage to the original concept with a black strip under the windows.

A front splitter, spoiler on the hatch, and motorized grille shutters divert air with a minimum of drag — all important when attempting to inch up electric range. Some call it ugly, but I think it is handsome.

On a continuum from pure electric vehicles like the ‘90s GM EV1 and Nissan Leaf to full gasoline models like the Corvette is a wide middle band. A Toyota Prius is towards the ‘Vette side since it is a gas vehicle, assisted by batteries. The Volt is on the other half of the middle: An electric car, backed by gasoline.

Charging the Volt’s lithium ion batteries is easy. Connect the included charger to a standard outlet, open the little portal near the driver’s door by key fob or door release, plug in, and wait about 10 hours. Or install a 240v charger and cut it to four hours. (The cost per charge is about $1.50.) Regenerative per-charge brakes put some juice back into the batteries during deceleration. Chevrolet claims an all-electric range of 35 to 50 miles, but total range including gas is about 380 miles — very sizeable.

In 100-degree Texas heat with and the A/C running at full blast constantly, expect less battery range. The EPA rates the Volt 93-MPGe on electricity and 37-MPG on gasoline. Expect 60-MPG on average and low-40s, burning fossils on the highway.

That’s all cool and stuff, but I’d buy a Volt just for the driving experience. Step on the forward motion activation pedal and the car accelerates eerily smoothly, with ample torque and no gear shifts, up to 100 mph. A Sport mode makes the throttle more responsive, but eats power. Outside of tire noise and faint motor whine, the car is silent. Even with the gas engine running, there is only a distant rumble from under the hood. Since the engine powers the electric system and virtually never drives the car directly, Volt remains an electric car. Steering feel is near perfect, the chassis likes to play, and the car feels tomb solid with its 3,781 lbs. of weight. It makes some big name hybrids feel like science projects by comparison.

I couldn’t resist blasting “Power of Love” by Huey Lewis and the News through the Bose audio system. Beyond sweet sounds, Volts come with options like heated leather seats, USB input for iPods, Bluetooth phone connectivity, automatic climate control, and front knee airbags. Navigation, audio, and climate are adjusted through a touch-sensitive center control panel. LCD screens display audio/NAV, MPH and a summary of energy usage during trips. It sounds complicated, but is as easy to use as an iPad.

Fold down rear seats and a big hatch makes it more practical than the Chevy Cruze with which it shares a basic architecture. A rear center console was necessitated by the battery pack, limiting passengers to four.

About 75 percent of us travel less than 40 miles per day, and in the Volt, we would never burn gasoline. However, if you want to drive to California, or just your parents’, fill up and go! Perhaps best of all, the Volt drives not like some cobbled-together prototype, but a fully-developed, completely-realized version of the future. This car is real, and it is a delight. To my dreadful sadness, the Volt has gone home and I am back from the future. But I know driving has forever changed.

Prices start under $35,000 after a $7,500 federal credit and include an 8-year/100,000-mile battery warranty. (Prius PLUS Performance Package, available on the Volt, is the first wave of PLUS-branded upgrades coming from Toyota in the coming months. Through relatively simple enhancements, drivers concerned about efficiency and ecology can also have a lot of fun driving their green rides. The PLUS package is priced at $3,699 for Prius Two, Three and Four models and $2,999 for Prius Five.)

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 22, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

DRIVE! 2010 • Volt ’n jive

Electric cars can finally claim excellent looks & genuine pick-up, making green the new black

CASEY WILLIAMS  | Auto Reviewer

Chevrolet Volt
PURE ELECTRIC | Chevrolet’s Volt, above, can be charged from a home outlet and go 40 miles on nothing but electrons; the Nissan Leaf, below, has a 100-mile radius but a simpler structure.

I have a special affinity for electric cars, going all of the way back to the mid ‘90s, when I drove the infamous GM EV1. It was a wonderful car, fast and quiet, and did all that was promised. It didn’t use a drop of gasoline, traveled 75 miles on an overnight charge and kept pace with a Camaro Z28 in 0–60 acceleration.

But here’s the real jive: People were unwilling to part with Mercedes cash to have a car that would travel more like 40 miles with the A/C running, stereo blasting and power windows racing up and down to retrieve bean burritos when making a run for the border. EV1 died a quiet death until Ed Begley Jr., Ralph Nader and even Phyllis Diller virtually accused GM of propping up the oil companies unilaterally.

Well, no more. Stay tuned for a fleet of great greenies  — one of the best from GM.

Chevy Volt

Charged from a home outlet, the Chevy Volt can travel 40 miles on pure electricity — more than about three-quarters of us drive in a normal day. For that 40 miles, the Volt is every bit as green as a Tesla Roadster, Nissan Leaf or Smart Electric Drive. Unlike the others, the Volt can drive on another 300 miles after the battery tires by automatically alternating the gas “generator” on and off to recharge the batteries. Call it an extended-range electric.

Chevrolet drove one from Austin to New York City over the July 4th holiday to prove the point. You can see the USA in this Chevrolet.

Prices start at $41,000, minus a federal tax credit that brings it in around $33,500.

Nissan LeafNissan Leaf

You’re also going to bear a barrage of advertising and happy talk from Nissan about its new Leaf electric car. Range is limited to 100 miles, but that’s enough for a lengthy commute, and more than plenty for a city car. Less complex than the Volt, it comes with a $32,780 base price ($25,280 after tax credits). For that money, you’ll get a five-door, five-seat cabin, extra-terrestrial styling and an LCD dash display exquisitely designed to give you fair warning as electrons fly by. Production begins later this year in Tennessee.

Tesla Roadster/Model STesla Roadster/Model S

I once heard Ed Begley Jr. say if GM built cars like the Tesla Roadster, it wouldn’t have problems. Well, if everybody can afford a $109,000 back-to-basics two-seat electric car that goes 245 miles on a charge, he’s right. In the realm of battery-powered rides, that range is way off the grid. For the price, you get supercar performance of 0–60 mph in 3.7 seconds — on par with 636-HP Corvettes. Tesla is also working up a three-row sedan for about $50k that will be built in the formerNUMMI Toyota/GM joint-venture plant in California. Tesla’s technology is so well respected that it is powering the Smart Electric Drive, a product of Mercedes-Benz.

Smart Electric Drive

I love my Smart, but its herky-jerky transmission could use some work. Running Tesla technology, the electrified Smart is as smooth as your razored face and goes about 80 miles on a charge. The $599 lease and very limited production will weed out those not smart enough to get one.

Tesla Roadster/Model S

HIGH  END ECO-LOVE | The Tesla Roadster, left, is an authentic performance car with zero emissions — and a hefty price tag; Mercedes’ gullwing E-Cell, above, will have gearheads panting when it hits the streets in 2013.

Ford, Mercedes and all the rest

Books will be written about this little grounding of the auto industry and its flash to the future, but there is an entire breaker box of automakers going electric. Ford will launch battery versions of the Transit Connect delivery van and its Focus, the latter with a 100-mile range, in 2011. Mercedes will snazz competitors with the E-Cell Gullwing, an electrified version of the SLS by 2013.

Audi, Toyota, Honda, Fiat, Mitsubishi, Volkswagen, Chrysler and Fisker all have new electrics on the way. Even Chinese automaker Coda will launch a $41,000 electric sedan with a 100-mile range next year. Markets will be limited at first.

These cars are Jetsons-era dreamy, but are here today. They will change everything you think you know about driving an automobile. No performance-emasculated weenies, they are a jolt in the ass to drive. And that’s no jive.

This article appeared in Dallas Voice’s DRIVE! Supplement November 5, 2010.

—  Michael Stephens