Finally, after almost four years, we've driven the 2011 Chevrolet Volt in a variety of conditions, talked over our impressions, and reached a conclusion: Yes, the 2011 Volt electric car is a real car.
It may be propelled by electricity. It may plug into a wall socket or a special garage recharger to "refuel." But the new and remarkable compact hatchback also rides and drives quietly, seats four comfortably, and performs briskly.
The fact that it also has a revolutionary powertrain that operates as an electric car or a plug-in hybrid--and is the first Chevrolet you can plug into a wall to recharge--could almost be an afterthought. It's that well executed.
The sole fly in the ointment is the inevitably high early adopter price: $41,000. New auto technology always costs a lot when it first hits the market, and the Volt's lithium-ion battery pack all by itself likely costs half the price of a new 2011 Chevy Cruze subcompact.
[For a complete list of Volt coverage, see our Ultimate Guide to the 2011 Chevrolet Volt.]
2011 Chevrolet Volt test drive, Michigan, October 2010
Regular car, less than remarkable looks
We've said it before, but we wish the 2011 Volt were slightly more distinctive. Up close, it's clear that it's a Chevy of a different kind, from the blanked-out simulated twin-bar grille to the high, almost horizontal tailgate with a vertical glass panel for visibility.
But in profile, we feel the shape just isn't as individual as the cars that compare most closely to the Volt, the 2010 Toyota Prius hybrid and the 2011 Nissan Leaf electric car.
Like the Volt, each is a five-door hatchback with a low drag coefficient. And is instantly identifiable at 100 paces. We're not sure the Volt is that distinctive.
Chevy even provided a black Prius to compare to our own black Volt. On reflection, that may not have been wise, since we preferred the crisp, taut lines of the Prius to the Volt's mix of slab-sided and softer contours.
It's not that the Volt is bad-looking--and it certainly got its share of stares on the road. We just wish it weren't quite so slit-windowed and heavy below the beltline.
Inside, the news is better. The Volt's cabin blends the traditional Chevy twin-cockpit appearance with some new touches, including a vehicle information display screen that's head and shoulders above any other Chevy we've driven.
A shiny white plastic finish for the console remains an option, one we fear may date quickly. Our car's console came in a handsome glossy charcoal, which also avoided the soon-to-be-cliche shiny piano black motif.
The Volt's seats are comfortable, with optional leather seating surfaces and some remarkable accent colors. One model we drove had lime green piping and green abstract-patterned plastic door trims, both of which worked far better than we could have guessed.
2011 Chevrolet Volt with hood open, showing range extender engine and Voltec drive
Crisp, quiet, and smooth
So what's the 2011 Volt like in mixed usage--which is to say, driving on electricity from both the 16-kilowatt-hour battery pack and that provided to the 111-kilowatt motor from the 80-horsepower 1.4-liter gasoline engine powering a 55-kW generator?
Remarkably like a regular car, only better.
And that's not just us speaking. Pretty much every reviewer has concluded that Chevrolet has built a remarkable car with a ground-breaking powertrain that it almost seems they've gone to great lengths to disguise.
Standard accelerator response
They've even tuned the accelerator to behave just like a standard car with an automatic-transmission. If you want to enjoy single-pedal driving, more like the Tesla Roadster, you have to put the car into a special "Low" mode.
In a way, that's a shame. We're all for predictability and not scaring consumers who may be daunted by the idea of new technology. But we wonder a bit whether Chevy may have erred on the side of conservatism.
Will that hurt sales of the 2011 Chevrolet Volt? Not in the slightest. It's a very good four-seat compact car, and its $41,000 price won't daunt the early adopters who will snap up the limited production: 10,000 in 2011, 45,000 the following year (or perhaps more).