Electric slide

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

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

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

Turning Japanese

A more insane ‘Mikado’ never did in Cowtown exist as John de los Santos puts a satiric edge to the Gilbert & Sullivan classic for Fort Worth Opera

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor

GRAND POOBAH | John de los Santos puts a contemporary spin on Gilbert & Sullivan’s 19th century satire ‘The Mikado.’ (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

John de los Santos will be the first person to tell you: Opera has a bad rep. It sucks, even.
Not all, opera, of course — just, you know, the sucky ones.

This may be surprising coming from a man who has made his living working in the opera field since 2003. But it’s not the music that he objects to; it’s the traditional, stodgy presentations — singers plant their feet and sing out to the balcony. Bo-ring.

Which is why, when he gets a chance to direct, he likes to mix it up.

De los Santos kicks off the Fort Worth Opera’s 2011 festival this weekend directing and choreographing Gilbert & Sullivan’s operetta The Mikado. Though you might not immediately recognize it from the look — or, for that matter, some of the dialogue and lyrics.

“Traditionalists will hate it,” he says. “We have Segways and iPads and dancers who pop-and-lock. And a lot of the lyrics have been changed. A lot.”
But really, that’s just keeping in tone with the Fort Worth Opera’s experimental and very audience-friendly approach to opera.

This production of The Mikado has its roots in a version workshopped at the Seagle Music Colony in upstate New York in 2008,where de los Santos works every summer.

“They asked me if I wanted to do it in kimonos or modern,” he says. “I’d done traditional so we rethought a lot about it and built a completely new set. [FWO general director] Darren Woods saw it and two years later he called and said, ‘I want to do your version of The Mikado.’”

The assignment was a minor coup for de los Santos who has worked with FWO since 2003 and the Dallas Opera since 2007 as a choreographer, assistant director and performer, but had only single-handedly directed one show: 2008’s Carmen. It gave him the chance to promote his vision of what opera should — and can — be.

“It’s a really young, talented cast,” he says. “Everybody is 35 or under. And so many young people in the newer school [of opera] know it’s not just about singing, but about drama and movement. It is sung beautifully but we’re not afraid to break out of that [stand-and-sing] shell. A lot of people will think it’s weird, but it’s a lot of fun, too.”

Updating the show only made sense to de los Santos, who praises the entire FWO season for pushing the envelope (see sidebar).

“Of all the Gilbert & Sullivan shows, The Mikado is the only one that really works as an update,” he says. Although set in Japan, “it’s not about Japan at all but a very contemporary satire of power and the stupidity of the day.” So de los Santos and company added a lot of contemporary references — including jokes about Donald Trump and Japanese schoolgirls and men in business suits dancing hip-hop. In fact, there’s a lot of dancing.

Mikado doesn’t need dancing but in this partiucular instance it makes it very fun,” he says.

De los Santos is best known to Dallas theater audiences for his dancing — he was the special guest last weekend at Uptown Players’ fundraising show Broadway Our Way: Divas Rising and will play a “sexy hooker” in the company’s upcoming production of Victor/Victoria — but as he hopes to show with The Mikado and then writing the book for a musical he’s developing with Adam C. Wright and Jeff Kinman, he’s more than just a pretty face. Though, ya know, there’s no harm in that, either.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 13, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas