But the new 2011 Chevy Volt isn't most cars. Picking up the vehicle at Oakland International Airport, dozens of strangers slowed their wheeled luggage to get a better look at a car that's received as much attention as an A-list celebrity.
And those DayGlo-vested police who normally strike fear in idling drivers' hearts? They were, for the first time I've ever experienced, friendly and inquisitive — and seemingly ready to ditch their day jobs to hop in for the ride to L.A.
Having driven the car for a day, I wouldn't have blamed them.
With its Volt, General Motors Co. zaps popular preconceptions that it's incapable of making a progressive, outside-the-box vehicle. The exterior is understated and attractive, and the interior is sleekly high-tech without being overkill. Accessible in both its design and operation, there's a normalcy to the Volt that belies what's under the hood.
Going into production next month, the Volt will be the world's first mass-produced plug-in electric with a range-extending gasoline engine. Chevy calls it an extended-range electric, although the automaker, which only recently cleared the patent on the Volt's drivetrain, explained last week that it's actually a hybrid that uses a gas engine coupled with two electric motors.
Nomenclature aside, the Volt is one of the most highly anticipated cars of the year. Capable of traveling 25 to 50 miles on electric power with its 16-kilowatt lithium-ion battery pack and 111-kilowatt electric drive unit, the Volt can go an additional 310 miles with a 1.4-liter internal combustion engine that juices its electric generator and drive motors.
Designed as an all-electric commuter that can also go the distance, the Volt achieves its best fuel economy, lowest emissions and lowest cost of operation when running in pure electric mode. According to GM, running an electric car costs 2 cents a mile to operate versus 10 cents for gas.
The Volt turns on with the press of a button, and the only indicators that it's running are a computer-generated whooshing sound and the rush of green-and-blue graphics that assemble themselves into a liquid-crystal display beyond the steering wheel. The motor is silent.
On takeoff, my display indicated that I had 18 miles of electric battery power (since the man from GM who so kindly came with the car had used up the rest on his drive from San Francisco). I could travel an additional 244 miles with the premium gas in the tank. High-octane is required.
A green sphere floated in a column on the right-hand side of the LCD screen, floating up and turning yellow if I accelerated aggressively, and floating down and turning yellow if I did the same with braking. The goal is to keep the green globe balanced in the center, indicating the driver is handling the car most fuel-efficiently.
Pulling away from the curb, I saw the globe bounce upward before balancing itself, Zen-like. Aggressive deceleration is less of a concern because the Volt is outfitted with regenerative braking that captures the kinetic energy of the braking force and helps recharge the batteries. Putting the direct-drive transmission in "low" when coasting or traveling downhill increases braking resistance and recharges the batteries even more expeditiously.
After traveling 11 miles, my dash indicated I had seven miles of range left in pure electric mode. I was impressed by the Volt's ability to predict because exactly seven miles later, when the car had about 30% of its battery life left to spare, the car did, exactly as it was designed, switch over to gas mode. Instead of the batteries propelling its drive motor, it was the car's 1.4-liter engine propelling a 54-kilowatt generator motor propelling the drive motor.
The only discernible difference to me in switching over to gas-powered electricity as a driver was an extremely low-level purr from the generator.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is still wrestling with how to accurately quantify the emissions of electric vehicles, and it hasn't yet released official mpg figures for the Volt. Checking the car's second LCD screen in the center console after traveling 72.5 miles —40.8 in electric mode and 31.7 with gas — my mpg equivalent was an impressive 90.3, despite my test of the Volt's top speed. How clean those miles are in electric mode depends on the electricity source.
I attempted to top off my battery's charge by plugging into the 120-volt wall charger of a burger joint for half an hour over lunch — the effect of which was so minimal it didn't even register on the display when I turned the car back on. I also topped off the gas, adding 4.1 gallons to the car's 9.3-gallon tank. Overall, I traveled 400 miles, averaging 39 mpg for the trip, which consisted mostly of highway driving. Fuel-economy varies depending on how the Volt is driven, of course. To that end, the car has several options. There are three drive modes to choose between — normal, which feels pretty sluggish on the accelerator; sport, which is a lot more responsive (though more energy consuming); and mountain, for hilly terrain.
Because air conditioning and heat are also major energy users, the Volt's climate controls incorporate an eco mode that, although it didn't turn the vehicle into a rolling refrigerator, kept me adequately cool. The "Comfort" setting would have been more like regular AC, but it also would use more energy. Ditto for the heated leather seats available as a premium trim on the Volt I tested; heating individual seats is more efficient than heating an entire cabin.
The Volt is more spacious than I was expecting for a compact, though it only seats four. The rear seat on this five-door hatchback is divided into two buckets to accommodate a T-shaped battery pack that extends along the bottom of the car from the center console and under the rear seats. Although the battery's placement centers and lowers it and makes the Volt handle like a regular car, it does gobble up the space that would normally seat a fifth person.
Both rear seats can be folded flat to open up room in a rear cargo hold that could otherwise carry a week's groceries. The Volt's 20-foot power cord is tucked in a cubby under the cargo hold and lifts with a simple strap.
The charging input for the Volt is on the left side of the car just in front of the driver's-side door. A button on the key fob opens it.
Charging the car with a 120-volt outlet like those in a house takes 10 to 12 hours. Using a 240-volt charger takes about four. 240-volt chargers will soon be available at the many charging stations now being added in various cities around the country. GM has also partnered with Lear Corp., which makes 240-volt home chargers that cost $490 (not including installation). Lifting some chassis suspension components from Chevy's recently introduced Cruze compact sedan, the Volt's ride feel is conspicuously normal. It feels solid and well balanced. Although the suspension isn't as tight as I would have liked for canyon cornering, it is sufficient for a car that will mostly serve as a commuter.
Its interior appointments were far more streamlined and refined than they are on many GM products. The slick gunmetal-gray center console was especially pleasing with a well-designed layout and high-end appliance-style buttons.
With its Volt, Chevy has made an EV for the masses that is alluring from all angles — inside, outside and under the hood. The Volt doesn't redeem GM from its past reclamation and crushing of the EV1, but it's a bold and impressive step into the future.