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Test Drive: 2012 Chevrolet Volt

GM is not a green car virgin. Its first relationship was with a car known as the EV1, an all electric car that was produced from 1997 to 1999. The EV1 was hampered by its heavy, inefficient lead-acid batteries that provided an average range of only 75 miles, and eventually all of the lease-only EV1s were crushed by GM. Of course, its horrid looks didn’t help much either.
So, when Chevrolet decided to produce the Volt, they made sure to avoid the same mistakes.
For starters, the Volt is not an electric-only vehicle. It also has an 84-horespower, 1.4-liter gasoline engine that Chevrolet calls a “Range Extender,” which means it can run solely on the gas engine once the charge on the battery has been depleted.
The Volt has two electric motors, one to drive the front wheels and another to generate electricity from the gas engine.  
The motors get their power from a 16-kWh (kilowatt-hour) lithium-ion battery pack that is 5.5 feet long and weighs a hefty 435 pounds.
As a life-extending move, the battery only operates at 9-kWh of its potential. This is a good thing because the estimated replacement cost for one is more than $10,000.
Recharging the Volt is as simple as plugging up a golf cart. It takes about 11 hours to charge on a household 120v outlet and only four hours if you install a dedicated 240v charging station.
Chevrolet says the electric-only range for the Volt is between 25 and 50 miles, which is dependent on factors such as climate, driving style and how many accessories you’re using. We managed to get 30 emission-free miles with the temperature at an ideal 70 degrees, climate control on, radio on and a 68 percent economical driving style (more on this later).
To extend the electric-only range of the Volt, Chevrolet added some nifty energy-saving features. One is the optional Bose sound system specifically designed with energy efficiency in mind. Unfortunately, it is as similar to a real Bose system as tofu turkey is to actual turkey.
The climate control also saves precious energy by turning on the seat heaters automatically instead of running the heater. You’re kept warm without the heater, but it isn’t a pleasant surprise if you’re not expecting a blast to the backside.
Because the Volt can run in electric-only mode, thereby burning zero gallons of gas, rating the fuel economy provided a challenge to the EPA. What they came up with is something called MPGe, or Miles Per Gallon equivalent, which converts the alternative energy source based on its content related to gasoline. For example, 33.7 kWh is equal to one gallon of gasoline.  To put it in a nutshell, MPGe shows what the equivalent fuel economy of electric-only operation would be in relation to a gas engine.
The EPA gives the Volt a 94 MPGe rating. But because the electric-only range is affected by numerous variables, this number can fluctuate quite a bit. We did not have the Volt long enough to calculate our personal MPGe rating, but Car and Driver calculated a 152 mile trip in the Volt at 74 MPGe.
The EPA also gives the volt a conventional mpg rating when operating on the gasoline engine alone. That figure is an unimpressive 37 mpg, meaning that the Volt is not the most efficient car available for long road trips. The Toyota Prius hybrid, for example, delivers 48 mpg on the highway.
The styling of the Volt even has efficiency in mind with extensive testing in a wind tunnel to reduce drag. Chevrolet claims the resulting design contributed an estimated eight miles worth of electric-only driving.
The interior is a technological marvel. No analog gauges clutter the dash; they have all been replaced by a single 7.0-inch LCD screen that displays your speed in the middle, your electric range and total range on the left, and a neat display on the right with a little green ball intended to show driving efficiency.
You’re driving most efficiently if the green ball stays in the middle, but accelerate or brake too aggressively and the ball shrivels and turns yellow. The shriveled ball then either moves up for too much acceleration or down for excessive braking. This could prove distracting, but it’s fun to watch.
There is another 7.0-inch display in the center console that houses radio operation, the optional navigation and rear vision camera, climate control information, as well as information about how economical your driving and interior settings are. This is where I got the 68% driving efficiency number, which is based on the percentage of time you keep the green ball in the middle.
Our test car came with the optional leather wrapped seats and steering wheel, both of which radiated high quality. The seat structure, however, felt a bit hard in the lumbar area.   
The rest of the materials in the interior were of decent quality and finish with the exception of the plastic beige trim pieces on the doors and dash that looked similar to the ones on the Camaro. They looked cheap on the Camaro, and they look cheap on the Volt.
The cargo capacity of the Volt is a disappointing 10.8 cubic feet. To put that in perspective, it is about half the storage space found in a Corvette. Plan on packing light.
When riding in the Volt it feels as if you’re on a cloud – it’s that smooth. It absorbs all the roads bumps and imperfections as well as a full-sized Cadillac. But even with its soft ride, it still manages a respectable 0.83 g on the skidpad.
Because the Volt has an electric drive unit instead of a conventional automatic transmission, there are no gears, so there is no shifting, which provides acceleration as smooth as its ride.
The base price for a Chevrolet Volt is $39,145. By the time you add in all the options of our fully loaded car, the as-tested price reaches $45,185. That’s softened by a $7,500 federal tax credit, making the grand total $37,685; pricey when you consider other high-mileage alternatives.
It’s easy to see why the Volt was voted North American car of the year with its phenomenal ride, dazzling technology and eco-friendliness. But the true test for the Volt will be how many real-world buyers are willing to pay a premium for a plug-in hybrid.
Test car provided by Heafner Motors in Batesville.