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Driver's Logbook: Will the Volt save GM, or kill it?

2012 Chevrolet Volt

General Motors

Imagine that you have been reincarnated as the Chevy Volt, the car that will define the next era for General Motors. You are the anointed one, freighted with untold expectation - if you were human, you would be Prince William, a scion charged with resurrecting a dynasty brought low by mismanagement and decay.

And things could go either way.

If all goes well, you will make your company billions and show the world that General Motors has rediscovered its corporate mojo. If they don't, you may go down in history as the technology gamble that killed the mightiest car company of all time.

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So, let's get on with the test drive.

Seeing the Volt for the first time was anticlimactic. It was a pleasant, faintly futuristic sedan that gave few hints about the advanced technology beneath its skin. Off I went, pleasantly surprised by the well-shaped leather seats and the nicely weighted steering. The Volt felt quick, and there was no noise aside from the air rushing over the car, the thrum of the tires, and a gentle whir from beneath the hood.

I've experienced this before in electric cars like the Tesla Roadster and BMW Mini E, but the Volt was different - when the battery ran out, the Volt could keep going by using its gas engine (it acts like a generator, pumping electricity to the electric motors.) The only limitation would be the amount of gas in the tank.

Unless you've tried to go somewhere in an all-electric car, you will not appreciate the sheer terror of range anxiety. The Tesla and the Mini E both made me feel like a bomber pilot coming back from a distant raid, praying that a friendly airport would appear before my tanks ran dry. Not fun.

Those experiences left me convinced that the pure electric car is, at least for now, a limited-use vehicle. If you do only short commutes and can return to a plug-in station every night, go ahead and get an EV. Just pray that you don't get invited to a friend's cottage or to a hockey dinner that's beyond your range (both of these happened to me.) The Volt is what engineers characterize as a bridge technology, using a combination of the old and the new in an innovative way. Like Toyota's Plug-in Prius, it has a much larger battery than a typical hybrid, which allows you to do many trips without using any gas at all. The Plug-in Prius will run for about 20 kilometres on its battery. The Volt will do up to 80, which means that many commuters will be able to run on battery power alone for weeks or even months at a time.

I aimed the Volt east and cruised along Highway 401, then up into farm country. An hour later, I had gone about 70 kilometres without using a single drop of gas. I watched as the battery charge bars winked out on the dash display. The range meter clicked down to zero. Now it was gas-engine time. As I headed down a concession road, I heard it light up. I was in new territory, commanding a power system that will, for good or ill, define General Motors in the next era.

I think it will be for the good. But the Volt's gas-powered mode will take getting used to. For drivers accustomed to the mechanical and auditory cues of a conventional, gas-powered vehicle, there are certain expectations. And none is more elemental than the connection between than your right foot and the engine - press on the throttle, and the engine speeds up.

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Not now. The Volt's engine reminded me of a generator behind a building - it sped up, and it slowed down, but I wasn't controlling it. My right foot controlled the Volt's speed, but not the gas engine. The engine's job was to make the electricity that the Volt's motors needed. How much of it, and when, would be decided by black boxes and lines of computer code, not me.

I didn't really care. I'd covered about 130 kilometres on 3.1 litres of gas. I could drive the Volt to work for weeks without using any gas at all. Or I could drive it to California if I wanted. No electric car can do that (unless you're willing to find places to charge it, and sit by a plug for hours at time.) The Volt's fuel mileage wouldn't be anything special on a trip like that, but it would make it. And when you get a chance to plug in, you're back to pure battery power again (and fuel economy nirvana.)

GM has made a huge, expensive bet on the future of vehicle technology. And they have put their chips down on a compromise - electric power augmented by internal combustion. Are they right? I say yes. Pure electric cars are very efficient, but there aren't enough places to charge them yet. And current batteries are an extremely poor way to store energy compared to a gas tank - they're heavy, they do poorly in the cold, and they take a long time to refill.

The world is waiting for a new energy paradigm. In the meantime, there are real-world choices to be made. Drivers need something that works today, for everything they do. And I think the Volt will work for a lot of drivers.

UPSIDE - Volt's large battery and advanced electronics will let many drivers travel for extended periods without buying gas. Onboard gas engine gives unlimited range.

DOWNSIDE - The car's high initial price (MSRP starts at $41,454 in Canada, less government incentives in some provinces.) Drivers may find gas engine sound disconcerting, since they don't control its speed.

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About the Author
National driving columnist

Peter Cheney launched his driving column after 25 years as an award-winning feature writer, investigative reporter and news correspondent. His writing steers clear of industry jargon to focus on human experience and the passion of driving. More

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