First Drive: 2011 Chevrolet Volt

Rear 3/4 view of 2011 Chevrolet Volt parked in front of a house
The 2011 Chevy Volt.

It's a picture a lot of us have entertained in our brains...home for the night, having commuted without using a drop of gasoline, our new Chevrolet Volt sitting out front for the neighbors to envy.

But how realistic is that daydream? To find out, we borrowed a Volt from the good folks at Courtesy Chevrolet in Phoenix for four days, shorter than our usual tests, but enough to give us an overall impression of the car Motor Trend has named Car of the Year. First of all, the Volt isn't a purely electric car. It has a gasoline engine, too. But it's not a hybrid.

Hybrids blend the gas and electric motors in driving, switching between them as conditions warrant. The Volt runs solely on its electric motor, not using a drop of gas...until the battery runs out of power. And at that point, the gasoline engine (a 1.4 liter four) takes over.

Front 3/4 view of silver 2011 Chevrolet Volt driving on highway
Is the 2011 Chevy Volt running on gas or electric? Only the driver knows for sure.

If you can keep the Volt charged, it's possible to drive for days, weeks even, without using a single drop of gas. The range on pure electricity is 35 miles, according to Chevrolet (though we could never get the dashboard display to tell us more than 29 on a full charge). We managed it until day four, when the to-do list required about 55 miles worth of driving, and the car hadn't had enough time on household current to fully charge before the trip.

Still, in 122.9 miles, we only used 1.8 gallons of gasoline...an average of 65.1 miles per gallon. Not too shabby.

Interior shot of 2011 Chevrolet Volt
The 2011 Chevy Volt interior. Detroit meets Sci-Fi.

What's it like to drive? Very much like a Malibu...roomy, smooth...and, especially on electric power, quiet. There are some "future car" touches...like the gauge clusters (there are two...one which monitors charging, energy use and efficiency that shares the audio/climate control/nav screen, and the one in front of the driver) and the contrasting white center stack that replaces buttons for audio/climate/nav with a touch-sensitive surface. Oh, yeah...and the "whooshzoom" noises that accompany opening the car and starting it. A little too cute. You can turn it down or off (you can also set it to ear-splitting volume and fool the neighbors into thinking a movie with THX is about to start).

The base price is $40,280 and the one we drove had the leather trim package for $1,395, a rear camera and park assist for $695, forged polish 17-inch alloy wheels for $595 and a front license plate bracket for $15. Total price with destination charge: $43,700.  But remember, there's a $7,500 tax credit for buying one...so the real bottom line is $36,200. And that is a fair price for what you get.

But should you get one? Well, the key is how much you drive and how often (and where) you can charge. The car comes with a 120 Volt portable charging cord, so you can plug it into household current...but fully drained, it'll take 12 hours to get to a full charge that way.

It's only 4 hours with a 240-volt charger, and Chevy will sell you one of those for $490. Want it installed? That'll be $2,000.


Ideally, there'd be a charging station near where you work, too...but they're not everywhere yet.

Still, our first impression is a good one: It's possible to not use gas or to use a lot less than you otherwise would, and if you have to drive farther than your charge allows, you've got a gasoline engine that can take you 344 miles further (again, according to Chevrolet...we couldn't get the gauge to promise more than 231). That's a nice safety net to have and makes the Volt practical as your only car.

A full weeklong test is coming shortly.

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