2011 Chevrolet Volt: Plugged in for mpg

2011 Chevrolet Volt

The 201 Chevrolet Volt can run on plugged-in electricity…or if need be, gasoline.

The Chevrolet Volt was one of the most anticipated cars in a long time, if as not quite a savior of the planet but at least a strike against the foolish waste of fossil fuels. Because, we were told, as an electric car, the Chevy Volt didn’t use any fossil fuels. At least not if you didn’t drive very far. But if you did, there was a gasoline engine to rescue you. It wasn’t a hybrid, GM said, but an extended-range electric car.

Here’s how it works: The Chevrolet Volt has a battery pack and an electric drive motor like any other electric car. It plugs into your house…either 120 or 240 volts…and overnight–10 to 12 hours–at standard house current house current the Volt is ready with a full charge every morning. Plug it in to 240 volts for a four hour recharge. Of course, that’s for a full recharge from empty. The alert Volt driver will recharge whenever possible (and preferably on someone else’s meter) so that full charges are rare.

2011 Chevrolet Volt power plug

The 2011 Chevrolet Volt’s plug is on the left front fender, just ahead of the door. The plug is waterproof, so the Volt can charge outside in any weather.

On a full charge, the Chevy Volt is good for about 40 miles on battery alone, depending on weather and how the car is driven, before it runs out of juice. That’s less than the all-electric Nissan Leaf, which can go about 100 miles–again depending on weather and driving–on a single refill of electrons. But then it’s plug in or walk.

Neither range is particularly limiting, taken for what an electric car is. A bicycle isn’t limo, a fish isn’t a bird, and a battery electric car isn’t meant to go across country.

One could, of course, increase the driving range with a very long extension cord, or from a more practical standpoint, mount a generator on a trailer and pull your recharge along with you.

That’s what the Chevrolet Volt actually does, though Chevy has eliminated the trailer and put the generator under the hood. The Volt runs for about 40 miles on the electricity from the 5.5-foot, 435-pound T-shaped lithium-ion battery pack (manufactured in Brownstown Township, Michigan) under the back seats and up through the center of the car. And when the battery runs out of electricity, the vehicle’s computer fires up the Volt’s engine and it starts charging the batteries.

Unlike a conventional hybrid, there is no mechanical connection between the engine and the wheels. It’s simply a car powered by an electric motor.

And like the Nissan Leaf, it’s a real car, if not more so. It’s a four-seat five-door hatchback compact sedan. There’s no pretense of a center passenger in back, that space taken by the battery running up the car’s spine, but the rear seats do fold forward for extra cargo capacity. There’s no barrier between the cargo compartment and rear seats, and the cargo cover is an elasticized rectangle of cloth that feels more like a mini-trampoline The individual rear seats–essentially bucket seats for the second class passengers–are more comfortable than they typical compact’s bench seat–though as a small car, legroom is limited. The front buckets are far closer to those of a luxury car than the average econobox’s.

In fact, the overall trim quality of the interior is a solid notch above the Chevrolet Cruze, a conventional front-drive, gasoline engine-powered compact, and looks like someone told the designers that they didn’t have to change the layout from the concept. The dash is unique, multilayered like a vest thrown over a sweater, wrapping back into the doors. The centerstack is a smooth, touch-sensitive surface with raised-relief pips to indicate where to push. Actual knobs and buttons are few, including audio volume and cabin temperature, four-way flashers and several control and information function.