New Car Review: 2012 Chevrolet Volt

Front 3/4 view of silver 2012 Chevrolet Volt parked on a bluff overlooking the sea
The 2012 Chevrolet Volt.

Quick. Name a car George Bush (either one) owned before or after the presidency. How about Bill Clinton (okay, an El Camino with Astroturf in the rear bed is kinda hard to forget)? Ronald Reagan? Jimmy Carter? Gerald Ford?

Presidents aren't usually car guys. But President Barack Obama today (2/28/12) said when his term in office is over, he's buying and driving a Chevy Volt.

Obama's previous car choices have sent mixed signals. His last car before becoming Commander In Chief was a Ford Escape Hybrid (also a recent Bill Clinton choice)...but until he announced his candidacy in '07, Senator Obama drove a Chrysler 300C...with a Hemi...leading us to believe he might be lusting in his heart (to borrow a Jimmy Carter-ism) for the new SRT8.

But let's take the Prez at his word. What kind of car is the Volt to live with and drive?

Rear 3/4 view of silver 2012 Chevrolet Volt driving in the rain
Rear view of the 2012 Chevrolet Volt.

Last summer, we did a first impressions piece on a Volt we borrowed for four days from a local Chevrolet dealership. This time, it was seven full days in a Volt from the GM press fleet.

First, unlike the preview car, this Volt charged fully, showing us 35 miles of pure electric range (we couldn't get the first car to promise more than 29). Second, it lived up to that number, unlike the Nissan Leaf we tested last summer that was almost always 15 miles too optimistic.

What happens after the 35 miles? The Volt switches to a 1.4 liter four-cylinder engine. The range of the two combined, according to Chevy and the EPA, is 379 miles.

If you live in a city where you can drive less than 35 miles in a day, and can charge the car fully (4 hours at 240 volts, about 10 on 120 volt household current), you can drive without using a drop of gas, and completely emissions-free. If, like us, you find yourself exceeding 35 miles a day on a regular basis (50 to 100 is more like it for yours truly), you're still getting the first 35 miles free. That's like saving a gallon of gasoline a day. At $3.75 a gallon, that's $1,368.75 a year.

Black interior of 2012 Chevrolet Volt featuring digital gauge cluster and multi-function display screen
The 2012 Chevrolet Volt interior.
What's it like to drive? Smooth, quiet and surprisingly quick in electric mode (though indulging the speed will reduce your range)...less so when it switches to gas. Remember, this is 3,781 pounds of car propelled by a 149 horsepower 1.4 liter four-cylinder when the battery's depleted.

There's plenty of room for people...but not so much for their things (cargo space is only 10.6 cubic feet).

The ultra-tech interior? Well, that's a matter of taste. Some people we showed the Volt to loved it. Others said Steve Jobs' sensibilites would have been offended (hmmm...what would an Apple-designed automobile interior look like?). We're somewhere in the middle.

Price? $39.145 base, which gets you what would be a fully-equipped car in any other mid-size sedan. The tester we drove added a nav system ($1,995) which also upgraded the audio system to include a 30 gigabyte hard drive for your music library, the Premium Trim Package ($1,395), which brings perforated leather-appointed seats, a heated front seat for the driver and passenger and a leather-wrapped steering wheel, and the Bose Premium speaker system ($495). With $850 for destination charges, you're at $43,030. But don't forget the $7,500 tax credit...bringing the real price down to $35,530.

That's still more than you'd pay for a typical car in this size class. But by now, it's obvious that this is not what someone who wants a typical car would buy. The price is just a bit higher than the one-trim-level-below-top-of-the-line Toyota Prius we drove a couple of weeks ago, but it's a roomier vehicle. It is significantly more expensive than the Leaf (about $8,000 after tax credits), but it's also much more usable, having the gasoline motor as backup. With the Leaf, it's electric or nothing.

Will Barack Obama, private citizen, enjoy his Chevrolet Volt? Time will tell. But (in the interests of equal time), we should point out that one of Newt Gingrich's criticisms has been addressed: