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2011 Chevrolet Volt (Dan Proudfoot for The Globe and Mail)
2011 Chevrolet Volt (Dan Proudfoot for The Globe and Mail)

First Drive: 2011 Chevrolet Volt

The Chevy Volt, unplugged Add to ...

Driving the Chevrolet Volt that's going on sale (finally!) for $41,000 in the United States - first deliveries are slated by the end of December - prompts the urge to tell the world.

Note to wife and sons: If some day we buy one - Volt comes to Canada in autumn of 2011- expect to find the battery-powered driving magically involving. And turning our backs on Petro-Canada cannot be a bad thing.

Memo to Globe Drive colleague Peter Cheney, whose Mini E test vehicle had to be towed back to BMW after its batteries ran out of juice: Cheney, this couldn't happen with a Volt.

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Assurance to worriers of all stripes: Volt operates like any other four-door compact lift-back. Normal seating for four and ample luggage room is facilitated with the lithium-ion battery hidden beneath the rear seat and within the centre tunnel. The battery is guaranteed for eight years or 160,000 km. Plugging in at the end of the day is no different than plugging in a block heater (or your house's Christmas lights for that matter) and requires no special equipment unless you purchase the optional 240-V four-hour charge (normal is 10-12 hours).

Next, however, comes the caveat, for those consumers wanting the bottom line up front on Volt's shortcomings as well as its charm: The blossom fades somewhat when purely electric operation ceases after driving 60-70 km.

So we discover covering some 300 kilometres of suburban Detroit.

Charging the Chevy Volt.

Utter tranquillity gives way to an ordinary compact car's sound track when the Volt's fossil-fuel burning, 1.4-litre four-cylinder automatically comes into play as the lithium-ion battery drains to a certain point. The noise and vibration of the engine generating juice for the battery and helping power the front wheels are all the more noticeable because of the initial, enticingly near-silent electric operation.

A cruising range of up to 560 km is the payoff of this hybrid powertrain. Believing an electric-only car wouldn't sell due to "range anxiety" felt by typical American drivers, GM created a Volt that is heavier, more complex and pricier than such all-electric competitors as Nissan's Leaf - but equals conventional vehicles in range.

How far it's good for between plug-ins will matter most to anyone hoping to kick the gasoline habit. The ability to commute to and from work, after an overnight charge, was the premise mentioned most of the hype during the Volt's three-year development from its debut as a concept vehicle in 2007.

Inside the Chevy Volt

GM now claims an electric range of 25 to 50 miles (40-80 kilometres) depending on driving style and conditions. The best result in a competition among invited journalists arriving by air was 45.8 miles completed with 12 miles of power remaining in the 16-kWh lithium-ion battery - indicating 57.8 miles. (Your reporter wasn't a participant, arriving from Toronto in his gas-burner.)

Keeping up with traffic the next day, however, Montreal colleague Jacques Duval and I only completed 36 miles before the gasoline engine fired up. We'd tried normal, sport and mountain modes, mind you, not best for conserving electricity, but learning in the process that 'sport' brings a little more life to the accelerator pedal. The suburban seemed our playground, and the electric power the equivalent of the best slide in the park.

By late afternoon we found ourselves agreeing, though, that in normal highway cruising with the gasoline engine intruding the Volt felt less like the car of tomorrow and more like an overweight Chevrolet Cruze, the new compact to which it is related: less responsive, not as nimble, falling short of Cruze's exceptional ride and road-holding.

Volt is a heavyweight for its size. The complex powertrain and 198-kg battery pack contribute to a 1,715 kg curb weight, some 300 kg more than the Cruze.

Whatever the complexity, it's simply not as electric as anticipated. The battery is only partially recharged by the gasoline engine's running, permitting brief returns to silent running before fast acceleration or a steep hill demands the input of the gasoline engine. A full charge good for another 30-50 km of exclusively electric progress requires another connection to an electrical outlet. The four-hour charge time mentioned prominently in Volt publicity requires a wall charger that sells in the U.S. for $490 (plus an estimated $1,475 for wiring). The cord that is standard with the car requires 10-12 hours.

Another turnoff for potential buyers is that premium fuel is required because, according to GM engineers, the engine was designed for maximum efficiency attained with higher octane. To its credit, Volt consumes very little gasoline while its two electric motors and the four-cylinder are combining their might: during one segment we averaged 47 miles per U.S. gallon (approximately 54 Imperial mpg), during another 57.2 (68.6).

The official fuel consumption rating has yet to be determined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, but GM anticipates lower numbers than our instrument panel produced. Certification must be completed when regular production of the Volt begins late in November; the cars cannot be shipped without fuel economy stickers.

The car is slated to come to Canada, Europe and Asia in the fall of 2011 as a 2012 model. Canadians worry about price and cold weather operation. Ontario offers a $8,230 tax break on the purchase of a car with a battery pack of this capacity, but given the $41,000 U.S. price, Volt still will be premium priced. Cold-weather testing was completed earlier this year at GM's facility at Kapuskasing, Ont. Jeff Wolak, an engineer in the battery and charging group, noted in an interview that the charge cords were altered after some cracked in extreme cold.

In cold starts, Volt's gasoline engine fires immediately to provide heating and defrosting even as the fully-charged battery powers the car. At least some gasoline consumption is inevitable, then. No matter your plug-in routine, driving a Volt cannot mean never having to touch another gasoline pump. Minimizing the frequency is its achievement, leaving ample room for improvement.

2011 Chevrolet Volt

2011 CHEVROLET VOLT

Type: Four-door compact sedan

Price: $41,000 in the United States

Engine: Two electric motors, 1.4-litre gasoline engine

Horsepower/Torque: 149 hp/273 lb-ft

Transmission: None, electric drive with multiple clutches

Drive: Front-wheel

Fuel economy: TBD

Alternatives: Toyota Prius, Ford Fusion Hybrid, Nissan Leaf

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