The Chevy Volt is Here…But What Is It?

2011 Chevrolet Volt.

The Chevrolet Volt has cost General Motors plenty in terms of development costs. But whatever that figure ended up being, a case could be made that they’ve gotten equally valuable publicity out of it. Talked about for at least four years, the Volt is finally trickling into showrooms.

We’ve heard a lot about the car, but it’s hard to put it into a category. Is it an electric car? Does it have an internal combustion engine? And if so, is it a hybrid? Well, yes…and yes…and yes.

In essence, the Volt is a plug-in electric vehicle, or EV for short. It recharges off conventional household power (120 volts) or through a specially installed higher-power cord (240 volts), and its large battery and electric motor can propel the car at low or high speeds for around 40 miles.

But residing under the Volt’s hood right next to the electric motor assembly is a small gasoline engine. For the most part, it just sits there, as long as there’s juice in the battery. When that battery gets down to near depletion, the engine fires up and acts as a generator to further propel the car. General Motors calls the Volt an extended range electric car.

So unlike the Nissan Leaf, the other electric car introduced to the public in recent weeks, the Volt can go as far as you’d care to drive it. The Leaf has a range of about 100 miles and then must be plugged in for a few hours to recharge. With the Volt, you can just keep going and drive it like a conventional car. Drive it clear across the country if you like.

The purpose of this layout is to assuage drivers’ fears of getting stranded with a dead battery. While many people like the idea of an electric car that produces no tailpipe emissions, they might not be ready to give up the freedom of being able to travel anywhere they like without restrictions.

I haven’t done a tremendous number of miles in the Volt, but I did get enough seat time recently to see how it performs in EV mode. As such, it’s a pretty cool car. Coming right off the charging cord, the high-tech readout on the instrument panel showed me that I could travel an estimated 37 miles before the engine/generator came into play. Zipping about Santa Monica and Malibu via Pacific Coast Highway, I found the Volt to be a perfectly fine car.

To drive home the futuristic technology within, GM’s engineers and designers gave it a few neat little features. The entire control stack on the dashboard had a kind of “iPod” operation to it. You can run the tip of your finger over various controls and the center display reacts to what you’re hovering over. Audio system, climate control, navigation and the workings of the battery system all pop onto the screen as you run your fingertip over the buttons that control each.

There’s also a cool little startup sound, like that of a computer booting up (it actually sounds like a version of that THX thing you hear in the movie theatres) as soon as you hit the “start” button. When you shut the car off, an opposite sound plays, essentially indicating the car is “winding down.” Pretty slick.

The Volt seats four adults, and has a handy hatch at the rear to handle cargo. My tall frame found plenty of room inside, and every feature we’ve come to expect in our cars is there. Base price is $41,000, but there’s a federal tax credit of $7,500 that instantly drops the price down to a more reasonable $33,500.

I hope to get some extended seat time in the Volt very soon, and really see how well it does as a conventional car. Or a hybrid. Or an EV.

I’ll see you down the road.

Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7 and can be heard on “The Car Show” Saturdays at 9 a.m. on KPFK, 90.7 FM. E-mail Dave at TVCarz @