Silently, the Bow-tie-badged car coasted through the darkness of the evening. A singular, soft glow that was utterly alone on this particular stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway. It sped swiftly. I was sunk in my own thoughts as I piloted the vehicle through the inky black of night. In the cabin, I was awash in colors that emanated from the both the seven-inch screen at the top of the center stack and the information display taking part in Occupy Dashboard.
The numbers were impressive.
I’d spent a week with the 2011 Chevrolet Volt. During that time, I managed to use just 3.1 gallons of gas. With no office to arrive at each morning, I was free to journey to locations near and far. The near destinations being related to the grocery store, the dry cleaner, and the rather large beer section at my local Whole Foods. Distant destinations saw me trekking to visit friends who’ve moved away from the cool climes of coastal California, to find warmer days inland. How far did that 3.1 gallons of gas get me? A hair over 300 miles.
Is there more to the 2011 Volt then miserly gas adventures? Yes. A lot more, in fact.
Upon first glance, the Volt is quite boring. It looks as if a Cruze was sent back to our time from the not-too-distant future. A time when parents were not allowed to have more than two children, and the Cruze developed a fat rear end in the intervening years. Keep staring at the Volt, however, and the looks being to grow on you. All of the exterior details, while seemingly simple on their own, come together to create an overall aesthetic that lets you know there’s quite a bit more going on underneath the skin of this four door.
Sharp headlights cut deeply into the front fenders, and sweep back into a sky-high shoulder line. Chevy’s designers did a good job attempting to cut down on that height by adding some black trim and a chrome strip, which tends to keep the eye running lower along the side of the car. Don’t be fooled though, there is a whole lot of real estate between the ground and the side glass. Moving backwards, the blocky taillights play nicely with the semi-futuristic visuals and sit neatly below the spoiler.
I’m not entirely gaga over the outside of the car though, as the forged 17-inch wheels seem to detract from the “I’ve been sent back in time to find John Connor” vibe. The wheels themselves are fine, but they seem to be better suited to an entry-level Cruze or Sonic. Exterior aesthetics should mesh from the roof to the rubber, and that doesn’t happen here because of the fairly basic five-spoke rollers.
Swing open the door, and the Volt tones down the futuristic tones. They’re still present, but in a manner that represents a quantum leap where even Dr. Sam Beckett would feel at ease. The only “Oh, boy!” would escape from Beckett’s mouth when he glanced at the center stack. The glossy gray surface is where you’ll find both infotainment and HVAC controls, as well as a few extra bits of tech to show you just how efficiently (or not) you’re driving. Minus a few major control points, there are no buttons to speak of. Instead, you operate the systems by touching the various nubbins protruding from the otherwise smooth surface of the center stack.
That’s right, I said nubbins.
Touch a nub, and the system responds. It’s odd at first because a light touch doesn’t produce the desired result. Once you find the proper pressure point to please a nubbin (what?), however, you’ll find the system is rather simple albeit a bit overdone. A simple button can still look good when done right.
Still, it’s all easy to reach from the driver’s seat. Said throne is surprisingly comfortable, yet also properly bolstered. The unit looks like it will be a harsh place to sit, almost appearing to lack cushioning, but my back was coddled and long trips were a breeze. Thankfully though, I didn’t have to sit in either of the back seats, of which there are only two. That’s right, this is a four-seater. Rear passengers have up to 34.1-inches of legroom at their command… as long as the driver is height challenged. I’m 6’3″, which means anyone riding behind me will learn to appreciate public transportation.
The heart of the Volt isn’t related to the interior or exterior design aesthetics. Not even close really, because the most important bits of the car are hidden away under the hood and underneath the long central tunnel that runs through the cabin. The 2011 Volt is a front-wheel-driver powered by a 149-horsepower (111-kW)/273 pound-feet of torque Voltec electronic drive unit, which receives its motivation courtesy of a 435-pound 16-kW lithium-ion battery pack.
All of that twist is available right from the get-go, which can make for a surprising turn of events at every stoplight. What’s also surprising is just how quietly the entire affair of driving actually is. This car is Lindsay Lohan at a Mensa meeting quiet. That silence helps to transition my mind state into a tranquil place, and the entire ride feels serene and smooth. The only sounds hitting my ears are the faint road noise produced from the tires, the music from the audio system, and the occasional Jetson’s-like hum heard when braking.
The Volt isn’t completely electric, as you most certainly know. A 1.4-liter four-banger has joined the Volt party, and serves to extend the driving range once the battery has been drained. Once that happens, the Volt becomes a standard hybrid and balances efficiency by playing nice with both propulsion systems. When driving around town, I was able to stay entirely in electric mode, and then plug the car in when I returned home. Only on longer journeys, where I used up all my precious electric go-juice, was I forced to engage the gas burner.
If I lost you up to this point, I understand. The car sounds a bit boring, right?
Thanks to that 435-pound weight sitting at the bottom of the car, the center of gravity is quite low. Turn the wheel of the Volt and there’s no body roll. Pick up speed, find another turn and try again… still no body roll. The Volt corners downright shockingly well. Now, don’t get me wrong here, this is no Miata. It’s a 3,781-pound extended-range electric hatchback on a quest for serious gasoline frugality. Yet it’s also a surprisingly entertaining ride.
The instant torque and flat cornering make for smile-inducing rides on the right road. Sure, the smiles come with a very noticeable drop in driving range… but you have the gas engine to back you up.
The brakes are another matter. Since this is an electric(-ish) vehicle, it utilizes regenerative brakes to recapture heat energy lost when applying the stoppers. Like most GM products, there is the initial absence of brake feel for the first inch of pedal travel, then the YOU STOP NOW! sensation of eating the steering wheel. It takes some getting used to, but I picked up the proper braking procedure by the end of my first day with the car.
So should we all be running out to buy $43,390 Chevrolet Volts (base price $39,995, or $32,495 with $7,500 federal tax credit)? Of course not. The 2011 Volt, however, is the car I will happily recommend to folks who fit in the right box. These people will be empty nesters or childless, have the income to support the purchase, a garage or driveway space to charge up the car, and be non-enthusiasts. There are a ton of people that fit that bill, and the Volt might just be the perfect car for them.
With my heavy right foot and a few long trips, I was able to force the car to suck down 3.1 gallons of gas. Had I stuck to my neighborhood during my week with the Volt, I would’ve used zero fuel. That’s amazing to me. I was never bored with the car, and never felt like I was driving something that looked like a college engineering project. I floored it from stop lights, and giggled like a child every single time. The braking noise, which really does sound like something from the Jetson’s, served to remind everyone in the car that the Volt is something different.
The downsides are certainly easy to see, of course. First and foremost is the price. $40,000 is a ton of money for the majority of the population. Sure, you will be saving major green at the pump, but the initial price barrier to entry is too steep for many to overcome. Secondly, the charging times are less than ideal. Chevrolet will sell you a home 240V system, which cuts time in half compared to the 120V that I was using to re-up my energy ante each evening. That would be a welcome improvement, but I was forced to use 120V, and my charging times were eight hours and up. If I stuck to city driving, however, I would have electricity remaining in the “tank”, and charging overnight was no problem.
For any issue I can come up with, I can think of many more pluses for the 2011 Chevrolet Volt. This car represents a major leap forward for General Motors, and I found myself constantly amazed at what appears to be a relatively basic four-door machine from the outside. This is the car that I want my wife to drive, my mother to drive, and my father to drive. Yes, I want to roar past them in a 1969 Dodge Charger with a 440 under the hood, classic Metallica on the radio, and gallons of fuel being burned by the minute. Regardless, this is the car that others should be driving.
As General Motors expands its use of the Voltec powertrain, the box in which I would recommend vehicles like the Volt will expand. Next up is a Cadillac version, which adds serious style and luxury into the equation, and after that could be a crossover, which would appeal to families.
The Volt is the future, today.
As enthusiasts, we shouldn’t be afraid of that. I don’t want to see big block muscle cars and exotic hyper cars disappear, but having non-enthusiasts drive vehicles like the Volt will insure that there’s still some fuel around for the rest of us.