Photos: Brian Merchant
The Chevy Volt is one of the 'Big Two' -- along with the Nissan LEAF, it's about to become the first electric car primed for the mass market in the United States. Each has its share of devotees: The LEAF is true-blue electric, entirely eschewing gasoline -- but that's a double-edged sword for some; it can to make those less enthusiastic about EVs nervous about running out of charge. Which is where the Volt comes in: Chevy's entry into the EV arena gets 40 miles on a full charge, but eliminates range anxiety with a backup gas tank that allows it to keep trucking in hybrid-electric mode. The Volt is just about to launch full-scale -- and TreeHugger scored a test drive. Here's how it fared:First off, I should say that my expectations for the Volt rode pretty high -- in my opinion, this is the car that holds the edge in the incoming EV showdown. Even though the LEAF is cheaper, the Volt's transitional, best-of-both-worlds approach stands to persuade the most non-EV enthusiasts to switch over. Since it goes an average of 40 miles on a single charge (depending on weather conditions, it gets 25-50 miles), the average commuter will be able to get to work and back on electricity alone -- but they have the option to go it in hybrid electric mode for longer trips. More importantly, consumers are reassured that they won't be stranded without fuel if the charge dries up.
Needless to say, I was hopeful that the Volt would live up to the buzz -- and that it would handle smoothly, have enough pep, and be utilitarian enough for red-blooded, SUV-loving Americans to be willing to shell out well upwards of $32,000 (after tax breaks) for an electric car.
My initial verdict, after taking it on a brief test drive through Manhattan, is that the Volt delivers. This isn't a blow-your-mind, 0-60 in 3 seconds, holy-shit-that's-an-electric car, like the Tesla Roadster. It's an electric sedan that's made to be both pragmatic and groundbreaking -- both practical and only quietly revolutionary. Towards that aim, it hits the major targets.
For one, it's a pleasure to drive. Here's my initial reaction, after driving the Volt for just a few seconds:
It's true -- it handled quite well, with responsive steering and fluid, ample acceleration. One of the nicest surprises was how distinctly un-sticky the braking was. As any veteran hybrid car driver can tell you, the regenerative braking that sends energy back to the motor also has a nasty habit of feeling overly touchy and jumpy. The Volt was clearly engineered to overcome this common gripe, as the braking felt as 'natural' as any midrange sedan I've driven.
Between the dash and the center console, there are numerous navigation and stat screens to cycle through, and a number of variously useful gauges relaying info like remaining charge, driving efficiency, and so forth. The Volt rep explains how the various apps work:
Some people have complained about the center console being overly obtrusive -- it seemed fine to me, and the aesthetic element it brought to the interior neither impressed nor deterred me. The seats were comfy, and the cabin was relatively spacious.
And here's a Volt rep with the lowdown on the car:
It's a nice car, through and through. It looks, feels, and drives, well, nice. That said, I nonetheless left the test drive wondering if it could catch on with the masses in its current incarnation, with one unanswered question: Will people would be willing to pay $10K extra for a car that performs similarly to a higher-end Camry?
Yes, it will save hundreds of dollars on gas each year for the average driver (a full electric charge costs an average of $1.50 or so). Yes, it has the cache of being one of the first EVs to hit the road. Yes, the petrol-aided range extender eliminates the issue of range anxiety. Yes, it's a sleek, sensible, well-designed machine. But will all that be enough to persuade buyers? Let's hope so. Chevy plans on moving 10,000 Volts this year, and 45,000 the next. And it's got the capacity to significantly ramp up production after that -- let's hope the LEAFs and Volts do indeed capture the public's imagination in a big way, and stimulate increased demand. Judging by my drive in the Volt, they deserve to.
More TreeHugger Electric Car Test Drives
Tesla Roadster Sport 2010: The TreeHugger Test Drive (Photos)
Electric Smart Car Coming to the US: Test Driving the Prototype
Mitsubishi MiEV Test Drive Review (Video)