Engadget test drives the Chevy Volt (video)

For a car that's been as eagerly anticipated and hyped as the Chevrolet Volt, seeing it in person is not exactly an awe-inspiring experience. In fact if you don't look twice it's very easy to mistake it for Chevy's Cruze, an eco-friendly (though decidedly traditionally powered) small car. The Volt is, of course, a little more special -- a car with both electric and internal-combustion engines on-board. That's not a particularly rare thing in this age of the Prius, but Chevrolet is being very clear: the Volt is an electric car, not a hybrid, and if you read on after the break we'll tell you exactly why -- and what it's like to drive one.

Two engines, united but separate

In a traditional hybrid powertrain, ala the Prius, the electric and gasoline motors are joined at the hip -- or, more specifically, at the transmission. Differentials and gearing handle the complex machinations allowing both motors to spin the wheels, either individually or together. While a Toyota engineer will say that's no big deal, as they've been doing it for years, it's one extra cog in the works adding friction and robbing efficiency.

The Volt is superficially similar, electric and gas motors both sharing an engine compartment, but in this case the internal combustion lump purely acts as a generator. It is not connected to the drivetrain and only serves to generate electricity, recharging the batteries while on the go. The idea is that you can drive the car as a pure electric vehicle for roughly 40 miles (until the batteries reach 30 percent capacity), then the 1.4 liter gasoline motor kicks in, recharging the batteries and directly powering the 111kW electric motor. That equates to roughly 150hp, which isn't bad for an environmentally-minded machine.

Chevy calls this an "electric vehicle with extended range capability," and since the gasoline engine is not connected to the drivetrain it is truly an electric car -- one that you could take on a road trip without worrying about finding 220 outlets along the way. But, unlike a typical EV the Volt has to lug around the extra weight of a second engine, a gas tank, exhaust system, radiator, and all the other accoutrement needed to keep things spinning. Sadly we couldn't get any of the many GM representatives to give us a curb weight for the Volt, so we don't know just how portly this is, but we'd be surprised if it came in much lighter than the Prius.

The drive

Chevrolet representatives were very proud to show off the design of the Volt, talking about the details like recessed wiper arms, smooth bodywork, and a trailing spoiler that all help to drastically reduce aerodynamic drag and to noise. That latter part is doubly important when you're working with a car that's quiet like an EV. And, of course, there's all the smartphone-integration and related tech to wonder at. Cool stuff for sure, but we were there to drive the thing, and drive it we did -- briefly.

Sadly we were only allowed to take it out for a loop around a New York City parking structure, but in our few minutes behind the wheel we were able to get a reasonably good feel for the thing. To start you simply put your foot on the brake and hit a power button that doesn't look much different from what you'd find on the front of an inexpensive ATX computer case. Hit it and a bunch of multi-function displays pop to life accompanied by the whirring of fans and other electronic devices buried in the dashboard. It sounds exactly like a PC booting up.

Move the curiously oversized shifter past P, R, and N and you get to D, then it's time to move. Pulling away from a start is smooth and nearly silent, with only the distant whirr of a dynamo reminding us that this wasn't a solid-state machine. Before long the supplementary 1.4 liter gasoline engine made its presence known as we drove up a parking ramp, the battery cells drained by the other test drivers on this day. Even when that was on, however, the driving experience was very quiet.

We were given an opportunity to put the Volt into sport mode (adding about 20 25 more horsepower) and romp on it a bit, and when driven in this way the car definitely responds. Unfortunately we barely topped 50 before running out of parking lot, but the acceleration, particularly from a stop, is far more responsive than your average economy car. What kind of top-range punch that electric motor can deliver remains to be seen, however. Handling was also decent, with very little body roll thanks to the heavy batteries being mounted low beneath the passenger seats and along the transmission tunnel. It's not a sports car by any means, but it did feel sporty enough to keep things interesting.

The interior was is also interesting, with an LCD display behind the steering wheel handling the crucial information -- speed, gear, economy -- and a secondary touchscreen mounted in the center console for controlling the in-car entertainment center. All along the center stack is a slew of capacitive touch buttons for things like the defroster and stereo controls, a trend that we'll be seeing in many more cars to come. The sport button is, at least, a physical thing that moves when you hit it. Thank goodness for that.


The Volt is an intriguing car, perhaps the most exciting thing Chevrolet has produced in years (next to the new ZR-1, of course), but ultimately it is just a car and we're left wondering how much of an impact it will have in a segment dominated by the Prius -- especially after Toyota's plug-in model is released. That the Volt will let most commuters get to work and back without burning a drop of E85 is hugely appealing, but there are two big questions left unanswered: what will the real-world mileage be once you do have to dip into the dino juice, and just how much will the thing cost.

That last question is the most important, and it's the one that nobody from GM wanted to touch. The initial goal was to have it sell for $30,000 or less, but it's unclear whether you'll have to factor in the $7,500 electric car federal tax credit to hit that mark. We're guessing you will, and for this car to be worth $30k it's going to have to put out some fantastic real-world efficiency numbers. Unfortunately that's the kind of info we can't glean from a half-mile test drive, and early 230mpg EPA ratings sound a bit... optimistic.

Chevrolet is still planning on selling the Volt in limited test markets (California, Michigan, and Washington DC) before the end of the year, so we're guessing it'll be at least another six months before we get the answer to either of those questions. It certainly is an entertaining drive and, if it can provide a solid value proposition not just for those looking to make a difference environmentally but also for folks just looking to save some cash, GM could have quite a winner on its hands here.