Here's what I learned-and what I didn't.
I was able to grab a drive in a Chevy Volt "range extended" electric vehicle this afternoon at the New England International Auto Show's press day. Aside from the heated discussion recently on the electric and/or hybrid technology that makes the car what it is, sliding into the driver's seat shows this is no ordinary car—there is a unique high-tech feel that GM successfully presents to the driver that's more like climbing into a fighter jet (and the outside looks are pleasant as well).
That's the initial impression, with a "glass cockpit" feel given by the two blank 7-inch LCD screens for driver information—one on the center stack and the other in front of the driver—there are no traditional round or needle gauges.
Hitting the glowing blue start button provides an audio "revving up" cue (adjustable by the driver) that reminds you of the beginning of "Top Gun." The screens then come to life with vehicle status information or, on the center screen, audio and climate functions. Screen displays can be customized by the driver. My only beef with the car is the speedometer is a digital number rather than an "analog-like" needle depiction, which to me is easier to convey speed by merely scanning angle position rather than "reading" a number.
Buttons on the center stack are touch-sensitive portions of the panel rather than distinct physical buttons. Completing the F-14 feel of the controls is a center shift lever that would not be out of place in a jet (except for the weapons control switches).
The Volt itself is a front-wheel-drive 4-seater hatchback. A fifth seat in the back is precluded by the Li-ion battery pack mounted along the centerline and over the rear wheels. Three electric motors are mounted within the transmission (two for traction), with the gasoline "range-extending generator" charging the battery or driving the electrics if more torque is needed. A look under the hood reveals the four-cylinder engine and an array of high-voltage (300V) electric cables.
The vehicle lists for $41,000, which in reality can be as low as $33,500 with U.S. federal tax incentives. The only options are premium leather heated seats, steering wheel and door trim; rear-view camera and park assist; 17-inch wheels; and special paint.
Unfortunately, drive-wise our route was a loop around the Boston Convention Center that showed the car's smooth pickup and quiet ride and not much else concerning performance and efficiency. Range is quoted at about 350 miles, of which up to 50 can be in the all-electric mode. (Chevy is even quoting speeds up to 100 mph possible in the EV mode!) Interestingly enough, with driving the car today, yesterday GM began production of the Volt in Michigan.
How committed is GM to the Volt? Perhaps as an indication of how much the company is staking on the vehicle is the fact that at October's Convergence Conference on automotive electronics in Detroit, I noticed the watering hole at the Marriott Renaissance Center (where GM's headquarters are based) has been renamed The Volt Bar.