When the trip odometer on the Chevrolet Volt hit 39 miles, the gasoline engine started up, but I didn't realize it until a few miles down the road.
What caught my attention was the fact that the graphic power/fuel gauge had switched from green to blue. Green indicated the amount of battery power remaining, while blue represented the amount of fuel in the gas tank.
The quietness of the gas engine was the most significant aspect of an extended Volt test drive through the hills west of Austin, Texas.
Heretofore, I had only driven the Volt in its electric mode on a flat track and was favorably impressed. But I assumed that the downside of the plug-in gas/electric sedan would be the noise from its 1.4-liter, 4-cylinder engine, which acts as a generator when the lithium-ion batteries are sufficiently low.
In a typical economy car with an engine that size, you would expect considerable whine leading to upshifts in the transmission. Not so with the Volt. Instead of a transmission, the Volt has a "drive unit" that does not produce shift points, even when the gas engine is running.
The 84-horsepower gas engine does not ever directly turn the wheels. It produces electricity that is fed to the 111 kilowatt electric drive unit, bypassing the batteries. You can see the flow of power on a 7-inch color touch screen in the center dash. When you apply the brakes, power flows from the electric power unit to the battery. When you accelerate, the process is reversed. If you are burning gas, the power is shown flowing from the internal combustion engine to the electric power unit, which turns the wheels.
Computer graphics also appear on the instrument panel, showing fuel economy and every metric you could ever need to know about the car's performance.
The Volt's battery is a T-shaped device under the passenger and rear cargo compartments. Because it produces a center hump, the back seat is designed only for two passengers, but the division becomes an amenity with a nice center console and plenty of head and leg room.
On the first day of the test drive, we used only electric power, covering 33 miles of hilly, challenging farm roads. The driver can select one of three modes: normal, sport or mountain. With the mountain mode, the gas and electric motors work together to get you up a steep grade. The combined power plants produce more than 250 horsepower. Operating on electric alone represents about 149 horses.
I made the 33-mile roller-coaster circuit in normal mode with the electric engine and enjoyed plenty of acceleration. In fact, the drive was very spirited, with excellent ride and handling. There was hardly any body roll in the curves, but the suspension provided a well-calibrated cushion over bumps.
The remarkably flat ride may be due in part to an extra crossbeam that runs through the battery to protect occupants against side-impact collisions.
The electric motor's range is estimated at 25 to 50 miles, which is less distance than most Americans' daily commute. If you do not drive more than that each day, you may never need the gas engine. You can charge the battery overnight and avoid gas stations altogether. But if you need to go farther, this car will not leave you stranded.
Estimating Volt fuel economy is challenging, but the Environmental Protection Agency regulators have agreed to rate it at 93 miles per gallon equivalent using electric power and 37 mpg using gas. If you used only electric power for a year, the cost of electricity to recharge the batteries would be $601. If you used only the gas engine, the estimated annual fuel cost would be $1,302, still a bargain.
"It's a very complex label because it's a very complex machine," said Volt communications manager Nick Richards. "We've got about 10 million lines of computer code in this car, and that's comparable to the most advanced jet plane."
Indeed, this car can even send you an e-mail, and you can interact with it, start it up, unlock the doors or schedule a charging time via your cell phone.
Volt carries a list price of $41,000, but you can shave $7,500 off the price in federal credit under the existing federal tax code. Whether the newly constituted Congress will allow that to continue is an open question. Several states also provide incentives. The most sensible option might be Chevy's three-year lease at $350 per month with $2,500 down.
Currently, Volt does not qualify for solo driving privileges in California's carpool lanes, but negotiations continue.
WHAT'S NEW: First plug-in gas/electric car.
PLUSES: Uniqueness, economy, environmental friendliness, flexibility, technology, comfort, performance.
MINUSES: Manual seat adjustments to conserve electricity, steep price of entry, unknowns.
BOTTOM LINE: Major milestone in daily automotion and important bridge to fuel-cell future.
(E-mail Richard Williamson at motorfriend(at)sbcglobal.net.)
Latest Money Headlines
After a Consumer Watchdog investigation, the Department of Transportation took action against a Pompano Beach moving company.