In one light, it was nothing more than a drive in a new car on a sunny autumn afternoon.

But in another, it meant taking the wheel of the most radical new car since the 1997 Toyota Prius—perhaps more significant yet—and driving it on public roads for the first time.

After almost four years, we drove a saleable 2011 Chevrolet Volt range-extended electric car yesterday afternoon. We’d waited for this drive a long time.

Eking out battery range

We're not big fans of hypermiling, but our Chevrolet hosts had set up a competition among journalists to cover the 43.2 miles from the Detroit Airport to suburban Rochester Hills entirely on electric power--and see who would have the most range left over.

The Volt's official range, using roughly 8 of the 16 kilowatt-hours of energy stored in its lithium-ion battery pack, is 25 to 50 miles. The competition clearly intended to underline that in fact 40 or more miles of electric range is possible in the 2011 Volt.

The route included no freeways, however, and few speeds above 45 miles per hour. That's not necessarily representative of how the Volt will be used in real life.

A few journalists ignored the challenge altogether, but after grumbling, we agreed to compete. We placed solidly in the middle of the pack, arriving with 3 miles of electric range left, for a total of 46-plus miles. The winner managed over 50 miles of electric range.

2011 Chevrolet Volt

2011 Chevrolet Volt

From orange to green

The last step was to plug in the Volt to recharge overnight, using a 240-Volt charging station set up in the hotel parking garage. That was simple: Press the button to open the charging door, unhook the charging plug, and plug it into the socket.

Once you learn which way the plugs mate, it's as simple as refueling, but plugging in takes all of 10 seconds. An orange light on the Volt's dash turns to green when the car begins charging, and that's that.

Taking it to the streets

So what’s it like? The Voltec electric drive unit in the 2011 Volt provides a smooth, quiet, and peppy driving experience. It’s fun behind the wheel and remarkably “normal,” to the point that after 10 minutes, you could easily forget it’s electric.

The Volt is also heavy, somewhat cramped in the rear—and visually not as distinctive a design as we think it should be for such a ground-breaking car.

These impressions of the production Volt largely mapped closely to our assessments from a drive last January in a development car.

The Volt engineering team has spent the intervening months refining, tuning, and tweaking the car’s driving characteristics. Overall, the final Volt feels somewhat smoother in electric mode than the development car.

Since we had the windows open during our electric run--to avoid the power-sapping climate control system--we couldn't comment on cabin quietness. That'll come with our next drive, which will run well over 100 miles.

2011 Chevrolet Volt

2011 Chevrolet Volt

Looking at lines from 100 yards

Finally, a word about the styling. The 2007 Volt concept car was a striking design, “an electric Camaro,” but turned out to be woefully unaerodynamic.

The laws of physics are a harsh mistress, and the Volt largely follows the recipe set down by the seond-generation 2004 Toyota Prius: a hatchback with a smooth front, and a high and abrupt vertical tail.

After two years' familiarity, we think the Volt is less distinctive than that 2004 Prius, not to mention the 2011 Nissan Leaf all-electric car. All three are five-door hatchbacks, but the Prius is easily spoted at 100 yards, and the Leaf is far more Space-Age and noticeable than the Volt.

Whether that’s good or bad in the eyes of the market is debatable. Detroit, where it’s well known and closely watched, is hardly an unbiased test market. But GM staff assert the Chevy Volt attracts attention everywhere; we look forward to testing that out.

More to come

We’ll bring you further details after today's technical presentations and more varied driving over longer distances.

We’ll also work to get answers to any questions you have about the Volt, so please leave us your suggestions in the Comments section.

General Motors provided airfare, lodging, and meals to enable High Gear Media to bring you this first-person drive report.