The 2011 Chevrolet Volt doesn't consume a drop of gas or exhale an ounce of exhaust into the air. But not always.
It runs on batteries that power an electric motor, but only for 25 to 50 miles before the juice is exhausted. Then, a 1.4-liter gas engine takes over to create more electricity so you can travel about 300 more miles before needing to recharge batteries or refill the gas tank.
The compact Volt starts at $41,000. A $7,500 tax credit trims the price to $33,500, but the savings is offset by the $1,965 price tag for a 240-volt garage recharging station to replenish batteries in four hours for another 25 to 50 miles of driving.
You can avoid spending $1,965 by plugging into any 120-volt outlet found in most garages — provided you're willing to wait 10 to 12 hours for a recharge.
Welcome to the plug-in battery car, an alternative to gas, diesel or gas/electric hybrid cars.
Chevrolet's media test drive in Rochester, Mich., last week, prior to Volt going on sale in December, makes it obvious the plug-in requires some adjustment time.
Volt is an extended range plug-in electric, which runs on electricity only, and uses gas to create more electricity only when the juice is gone. It is not a hybrid, which runs on gas and electricity, with electricity adding energy only when the gas engine needs it. Hybrids aren't recharged.
Volt vehicle line director Doug Parks said recharging costs about $1.50 based on the national average of 11 cents for 1 kilowatt-hour of electricity. Volt doesn't have a mileage rating for gas consumption, but those 300 added miles come from 9.3 gallons in the tank.
We found Volt is lively to drive and sprints into and out of the passing lane or down the merger ramp.
While rated at an economy-car-worthy 149 horsepower, Volt packs a sports car punch from 273 foot-pounds of torque for robust performance.
It easily zips to 75 mph on the interstate, though in doing so you reduce driving range. It's spirited, but remember the badge reads "Volt," not "Camaro." Its DNA is high-mileage over high-speed.
To check battery-mode range, we drove a variety of city streets at speeds up to 50 mph, getting 42.8 miles once, and 50 miles another time, before batteries expired and the gas engine kicked in, evidenced only by a split-second muffled sound. That's also when a blue gas gauge appears in the dash screen where the green battery charge bar graph had been.
To recharge the Volt, plug it into the 120-volt garage socket or plug the cord from a 240-volt charger into a port in the front fender. No fear of shock, even in rain.
A dash light glows amber to signal the cord is attached properly, then green to show charging has started.
Volt's lithium-ion battery pack carries an eight-year, 100,000-mile warranty, though Parks said it is designed to go 10 years, 150,000 miles without problems. You can use a smart phone to check the Volt's battery charge and range before driving, as well as program the compressors to heat or cool the car before leaving.
Stability and traction control are standard, but the suspension is designed to optimize mileage more than ensure precise moves into and out of corners.
It's nimble enough to pass without lingering, but handles as if meant for the road, not track. Low-rolling-resistance radials with stiff sidewalls optimize mileage, but sacrifice some ride smoothness over tar marks.
A light foot and level road maximize battery mileage range. A lead foot, hilly terrain, and heat or air-conditioning use reduce range, as it does in any car.
Electric motors don't make noise like gas engines do, so the silent Volt lets out a "beep-beep" when pulling the turn indicator stalk to alert pedestrians it's coming. But it's more of an asthmatic warble than a slick Road Runner trill.
Volt isn't a battery-powered golf cart, but a roomy and comfortable, well-appointed 4-door hatchback with upgraded trim and ample leg, head and arm room for four adults. One gripe: The sloped roof extends too low over the door openings and demands ducking to keep from thumping the melon when getting in or out.
If you're a smart phone apps master, Volt technology is simple. If tech-challenged, ask the kids for help. Controls are activated by fingertip touch on a screen or on words in the instrument cluster. Rather than an E-to-F fuel gauge, Volt has displays keeping tabs on battery charge, miles traveled and remaining range. When the gas engine takes over, a fuel gauge appears. There's even a gauge that lets you know what time of day batteries will reach 100 percent charge on 120- or 240-volt current if you plug in now.
"As we drive down the cost of batteries by driving up sales volume, we hope to see the price go down and Volt become more affordable," Parks said.
Parks said Chevy is working on generation II and III Volts to develop smaller, more powerful, yet less expensive battery packs that enjoy even longer life spans.
Volt goes on sale in December in California, Texas, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Michigan and Washington, D.C. Sales go nationwide in 12 to 18 months. Chevy estimates 11,000 sales for 2011 and 45,000 annually by 2012.
Other electrics in the worksLater this year, a compact 4-door hatchback Nissan Leaf plug-in goes on sale at $32,780 (before a $7,500 tax credit) boasting about 100-mile battery range before a 20-hour recharge with a 120-volt plug, seven to eight hours with a 240-volt charger that costs $2,700 with installation. Like Volt, using heater, air conditioner, climbing hills, or standing on the pedal at 75 mph cut range. Leaf has no gas engine to fall back on.
Another plug-in coming is the battery-powered two-seater Smart Fortwo, with a range of about 84 miles, or four to five hours of low-speed city-only driving, before needing a 3.5-hour recharge using a 240-volt outlet to bring the lithium-ion pack back to 80 percent power, or an eight-hour recharge for a 100 percent charge. However, the battery-mode Smart is rated at 40 horsepower, which makes taking off from the light feel as if you're moving in slow motion and inclines in the road feel like climbing mountains. And, of course, Smart is just a two-seater. Smart is leasing only 250 models at $599 a month until 2013, when it will start selling the electric car.
In 2012, Toyota will offer a plug-in version of its current hybrid Prius, though, at the moment, the Prius plug-in promises only 13 miles of battery-only motoring before the car reverts to hybrid operation using gas and batteries.