October 14, 2010 at 4:57 pm

Scott Burgess

Groundbreaking Chevy Volt is buzzworthy

The Chevy Voltís electric motors produce 149 horsepower, 273 pound-feet of torque, and a pure electric ride for the first 40-something miles. (David Coates / The Detroit News)

No one can screw up a good thing like General Motors Co., the U.S. carmaker with the innate ability to magically unravel silk purses into a sow's ear faster than a website can post an outlandish headline.

Sadly, as editors and reporters around the world attempt to understand planetary gear sets (hint, the sun gear is in the middle), half shafts and high-speed generator motors, the 2011 Chevrolet Volt will get parked in a confused haze of what percentage of torque from the gas engine turns the wheels.

Here's my take: I don't care.

Instead of trapping GM in a lie or defending a company that should have seen these storm clouds three years ago, I'll simply add my 2 cents: The Volt is a great car.

Label mongers who demand the Volt is a hybrid (it's not) can slap a hybrid refrigerator magnet on the fender if they want. They should also admit, according to their own standards, that the Volt is the best hybrid on the face of the Earth. Then, go out and buy two.

Electric purists who say the Volt is an electric car (it's not) must also admit that all electric cars are currently coal-fired, steam-powered vehicles, which is where most of our juice comes from nowadays. Then, go out and buy two.

It's important that anyone vocal enough to e-mail me their insightful and uninformed thoughts buy at least two Chevy Volts to help lower its price. With a starting sticker of $41,000, the Volt might as well run on diamonds, which used to be coal before succumbing to untold tons of (media) pressure.

No matter how you view this gem of GM, the Volt delivers electric car performance and unlimited gas mileage if you drive like 80 percent of America, less than 40 miles a day.

The problem with the Volt is the technology under the hood is more complicated than a five-word headline.

We live in a world that requires definitive labels. Something this new represents change, and lots of people find change scary.

Powered upThe Volt will leave you screaming, but from its performance and great acceleration.

The electric motors produce 149 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of torque. Those are torque numbers you see in V-6s. There are three driver settings: normal, sport and mountain, which adjust a number of electric inputs. My favorite is sport.

The electric power steering is clean, well-weighted and provides a nice return to center. The suspension, which includes an independent front and semi-independent torsion beam rear, is soft for this heavy car. GM has not released its weight, though with more than 400 pounds of batteries, two electric motors and a small four-cylinder gas engine, this car won't be light. Its body rolling through hard corners and tight maneuvering was kind of expected.

The brakes, which include regenerative braking to help push more electricity into the battery pack, take a little getting used to.

The Volt provides a drive setting that will force harder regen braking, similar to some hybrids, and it feels like the car has downshifted when the driver takes his foot off the accelerator. While eco-fficient, it's also eco-nnoying.

Perhaps the most impressive part of the Volt ride is how quiet it is. When the gas engine kicks on, it purrs. The start/stop system on the gas engine is flawless, making it difficult to tell when exactly the engine has turned over. There were more than a couple of times while driving it that I had to roll down the window to confirm whether the engine was on or off.

Chevrolet accomplished this with a number of lightweight sound-dampening materials, some of which were sprayed onto body panels, and a laminated windshield. Add to that a car with a drag coefficient of 0.28 and you understand why it's so quiet.

Inside beauty

The cabin is simply the best Chevy interior available. The two-tone dash clearly marks the traditional dual cockpit design that moves from the dash through the doors in a nearly seamless look. This helps the cabin feel even bigger. The grains and materials are all top notch throughout.

The optional heated leather seats are a must order — though interestingly, they are not electric powered. The leather just looks and feels nicer than cloth seats. While there are only two seats in the second row (instead of the bench seat) because of the battery package, I prefer this approach. Most compacts technically can sit five people, but rarely five adults.

The 7-inch LCD digital instrument panel adds to the car's high-tech feel, as does the 7-inch touch screen at the top of the dash. Both are programmable and can be adjusted to show a multitude of settings. Throughout the cabin, the driver is always reminded of the car's eco sensibilities.

The white center stack in my test vehicle added a clean and Apple-esque feel to the interior and the buttonless center stack, which uses touch sensitive spots, are easy to use and add to the clean feel. This is the most thoughtful design and best executed interior Chevy has ever created.

Worth the money?

All of this technology comes with a price: $41,000 or $33,500 after the government rebate. Is it worth it?

If you're looking for some sort of pay back, such as the money saved driving electric, then the answer is no. It may offer every bell and whistle from push button start to a smart phone app that can monitor the car, but it will never save you the difference.

But electric cars are more than an economical purchase. For people who want to drive an electric car without the hassle of range limits and for people who want to buy a car with cutting-edge technology, the answer is a resounding yes.

For the money, here's what you get: An electric car for the first 40-something miles — Chevy states the range as 25 miles to 50 miles, depending upon the weight of the driver's foot.

During two days of testing, I managed 32 miles on electric only at better-than-highway speeds. The following day, with more typical driving, I managed 46 battery miles.

That means I could drive to work and back and never use a drop of gasoline. The next day, I could do the same thing. No gasoline car or traditional hybrid can make the same claim.

Then over the weekend, I could drive to Knoxville, Tenn., and back with never a worry and never a recharge. No electric car in the world can make that claim.

Introducing an all-new vehicle, something that has never been tried or sold before, takes money and gumption. Chevrolet has shown both.

The Volt is world-beater. Mother Nature might be the first to buy two.

sburgess@detnews.com

(313) 223-3217

Report Card

Overall: ****
Exterior: Good. Clean and distinctive front end and very recognizable rear make the Volt stand out whether it’s coming or going.
Interior: Excellent. Luxurious materials set in a thoughtful and well-executed design. This car feels as high tech as it really is.
Performance: Excellent. Great mileage numbers. Electric powertrain provides a great ride.
Public Relations: Poor. Welcome to the new technology club. When introducing something new, everyone will line up to tear you down. GM should have been better prepared.
Pros: An electric car you can drive as far as you want.
Cons: Price tag still too steep for most people.
**** Excellent *** Good ** Fair * Poor

Auto critic Scott Burgess gets a feel for the top notch interior, which is ... (David Coates / The Detroit News)
Chevrolet used lightweight sound-dampening materials and a laminated ... (David Coates / The Detroit News)
Car charging stations are needed to power the Voltís more than 400 pounds ... (David Coates / The Detroit News)
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