2011 Chevrolet Volt

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2011-chevrolet-chevy-voltAfter letting the Prius test mule off its extension cord last week, I thought I knew what to expect from a plug-in hybrid: cheap to operate, teeth-gritting to drive.

Then arrived this sleek, modern sedan—comfortable, well-made, good-looking (in a high-end-kitchen-appliance kind of way) and quite pleasant to drive.

Another plug-in hybrid, and it’s from Chevrolet. Yes, it’s the vaunted Volt, the thing GM brashly promised us way back in 2006, before it went into its near-death spiral in 2008.

Like the plug-in Prius, The Volt has a socket in its left front flank and hundreds of pounds of lithium-ion battery worth its weight in polar-bear fur buried beneath the floor. Like the Prius, it runs on electrons till the gas engine has to kick in. Like the Prius, when you get home you can hook it up to an ordinary wall outlet—which, as with the Prius, does not dim my house lights. It needs about 12 hours to recharge completely (much more than the Toyota), but it goes nearly 50 miles before it has to switch to burning dinosaur squash (also much more than the Toyota).

We can read about electric cars till we pass out from boredom, but nothing prepared me for the reality of a “normal” car that uses literally no gasoline—none, nada, zip, zilch. In one week of Volt-driving (supermarket, PO, farmer’s market, library, dentist, the office, the gym) I burned 0.8 gallons of gas. The only reason it was even that much was because I wanted to light up the gas mill, so I went out of my way to drain the battery. This brought the efficiency down from “250+” to a mere 161 MPG. The entire week could have been done easily on just outlet juice—by recharging the car at night—yet I could have set out for the Big City any time because of the four-cylinder gas motor; fuel economy then would hover around 37 MPG. I can’t do that with an electric-only Tesla or Nissan Leaf, at least not without plugging it in for hours somewhere along the way. As in any hybrid, the Volt’s gas engine and brakes also help recharge the battery through a generator.

I keep comparing the Volt to the Prius because, for good or ill, Toyota has set the bar for hybrid vehicles, plug-in or not. But here’s the rub: The Volt is a far nicer and more useful car. In fact, it’s the best Chevy sedan I can recall, not something stamped out for the rental fleets. Push the start button, engage the gear lever and the Volt silently rolls off. It’s a heavy car but not a ponderous one, and it drives almost luxuriously, with none of the oddball quirks of the Prius or the Honda Insight. Steering, accelerator and brakes are nearly as linear as in a good conventional sedan. Top speed is 100 MPH. The interior is modern and tasteful, and the quality and finish are what we expect from Japan. If Chevy built the flimsy-feeling Prius and Toyota the Volt, we’d shake our heads and roll our eyes and laugh at GM. Subtract the $7,500 federal rebate and a Volt costs about $24,000. Want to kick the oil habit? This is a painless way to do it.


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