Introduced in early 2007 as a concept vehicle, the Chevrolet Volt has made it to production as a 2011 model. Four years is not a lot of time for automakers to develop and produce a new model, but the Volt seemed to take forever because of the hype around this innovative new car.
But does the 2011 Chevrolet Volt meet expectations? It certainly does not look like the concept car shown at the 2007 Detroit auto show. But that car did not offer the practical interior dimensions of the production Volt.
And despite Chevrolet's initial claims that the Volt's wheels would only be driven by its electric motor, Motor Trend published details showing that, under certain conditions, the Volt's gas motor supplies motive power to the wheels.
Chevrolet calls the Volt an extended-range electric vehicle, but technically it is still a hybrid, as it has both an electric motor and a gas engine to power the wheels. It is, however, a very different hybrid from the Toyota Prius. In fact, it feels light years ahead of that car, which became indelibly associated with the term hybrid.
The Volt that finally reached production looks mild-mannered, like one of the many thousands of suburban sedans rolling down the roads every day. On the streets of San Francisco, the 2011 Volt nabbed barely a look from passersby.
The largely closed-off grille gives some clue to the car's nature, favoring aerodynamics over air intake. The rear of the car also separates itself from a typical sedan, because the Volt is actually a hatchback. The rear lip sits just higher than that of a sedan, and a big rear hatch opens to show a spacious cargo area.
Chevrolet chose to put two bucket seats in the rear, limiting the Volt to four passengers. This arrangement, which somewhat limits the car's practicality, is because of the T-shaped 16 kWh lithium ion battery pack running down the center. But fold down the rear seats, and you can pack a lot of gear into the back of the Volt.
The dashboard, unlike on current Chevrolet models, echoes the futuristic power train of the Volt. It still has a steering wheel and pedals for acceleration and braking, but the shifter is a big white lever that nestles into the dashboard when in Park.
Above the shifter is a set of touch buttons with labels that get backlit at night. These solid-state buttons work well, showing good response and tactile behavior. But they are not logically laid out, strewn as they are across the center stack. The navigation button is on the lower left, the phone button about midway up on the right, and audio source buttons up on the left. This layout is about the only fault with this interface.
At the top of the stack sits an LCD touch screen with good resolution. Although a knob in the center of the stack makes it convenient to scroll through list displays on the screen, it is quicker to use the touch screen for the onscreen keyboard. A voice command system also offers some basic control over the audio system, along with phone dialing and destination entry.
The Volt's navigation system makes use of the car's hard drive for map storage. It shows maps in 2D and 3D views, the latter showing select landmark buildings rendered in 3D. The map quality looks excellent, with easily readable street names and route guidance graphics.
Traffic data appears on the map as incidents and flow information. The system warns of traffic jams ahead, bringing up a screen showing the incident and an Avoid button, which recalculates the route. The system even proactively warns of trouble ahead when you haven't programmed in a destination.
The navigation system offers the usual points-of-interest database, but it doesn't offer much help in finding places to recharge the car's batteries. Strangely, the database shows not only gas stations, but locations for diesel, biodiesel, natural gas, and even hydrogen. Locations for quick charges would be convenient, even if there are not that many available yet.
Chevrolet keeps 30GB of the Volt's hard drive reserved for music storage. The single CD/DVD player can rip music to the drive, with a Gracenote database automatically tagging all songs appropriately. The Volt also has a standard USB port, which works with an iPod cable to play music over the stereo. Both the hard drive and iPod interface make it easy to find music by the usual artist and album categories. The satellite radio interface works better than most, showing not only each channel name, but also the current song playing on each.
As a means of limiting onboard electricity use, Chevrolet uses a Bose audio system designed for efficiency. Although it doesn't boast hundreds of watts, the sound coming out of the seven-speaker system comes through with reasonable detail, the subwoofer adding some richness. It is not audiophile-quality, but it sounds better than typical six-speaker systems.
Along with the Volt's robust Bluetooth phone system, Chevrolet includes an OnStar application designed specifically for the Volt. The app can remotely unlock the doors, show the car's location, and initiate charging if the car is plugged in. This last function helps when taking advantage of non-peak electricity rates.
As another means of getting the most electric range from the car, the climate control screen offers an Eco mode, useful for moderately hot or cold days. Seat heaters, part of the Premium package, make it possible to drive the car without cranking the vent heat. Hypermilers in warm climates will want to rely on the Fan Only mode during most of their driving, as the air conditioning causes a hefty drain on the battery.