Volt hits showrooms

A real automobile revolution is upon us and the Chevrolet Volt is literally leading the charge.

The Volt is one of the most talked-about and eagerly anticipated automobiles of all time since it will be the first truly practical electrical vehicle available for public consumption.

By now, nearly everyone on the planet has heard about the Chevrolet Volt, an innocuous-looking, front-wheel-drive hatchback sedan that features a revolutionary electric powertrain with a built-in travel-insurance policy in the form of a gasoline-engine generator.

The production Volt is a far cry from the flashier 2007 concept version that toured the auto-show circuit. What has emerged is a fairly conservative compact-sized four-door with a steeply raked windshield, Malibu-inspired nose and a squared-off rear deck. The designers claim that the car looks the way it does so as to slice the air as cleanly as possible, aided by a set of low-rolling-resistance tires.

The Volt concept is simple. The onboard batteries power the electric motor for about 40 miles of combined city/highway driving, after which a 1.4-liter four-cylinder gasoline generator engine is used to charge the lithium-ion battery pack. Total range is about 300 miles before either refueling the generator engine with premium-grade pump gas or recharging the 400-pound T-shaped battery pack that extends along the car’s spine between the front and rear wheels.

The generator itself is rated at 60 kilowatts, or the equivalent of 80 horsepower, while the electric motor produces 111 kilowatts (150 horsepower) and 273 pound-feet of torque.

To be clear, the Volt differs from hybrid models such as the Toyota Prius in that the onboard gasoline engine has zero direct involvement in turning the front wheels. The electric motor alone performs that function, even when the gas-power-generator engine is running.

The one aspect of the Volt that’s similar to a hybrid is its system that helps recharge the batteries from the energy captured (converted to electricity) whenever the brakes are applied.

Since the Volt is electrically powered, there’s no transmission per se, but it uses a single-speed controller to engage the drive wheels. However, the operator can select Normal, Sport or Mountain mode with the latter providing extra power on steep grades.

Commuters who want to simply charge up the Volt each night for the next day’s drive need no special gear; they can plug right into a standard 120-volt electrical outlet. But where a typical gas fill-up at the service station might take 10 minutes, charging takes 10 hours, however that time is cut to three to four hours when using the optional 240-volt charging station. GM estimates that the energy consumed by recharging the batteries on a daily basis won’t exceed the amount used by a typical refrigerator. In this case, if the cost was converted into fuel dollars, GM touts that the Volt would be rated at 230 mpg.

The Volt replaces typical instrumentation with a screen that, among other things, provides the driver with the total range remaining, as well as battery life, fuel level and average fuel economy.

On the road, the only sound comes from the whirring electric motor, and even that noise is muted through the use of special sound-deadening materials. However, drivers can activate a warning horn "chirp" to alert pedestrians that the silent-running Volt is nearby. Expect this to be an issue as the use of electric vehicles increases.

Beyond electric operation, the Volt is really just like any other car you might buy. Standard features include climate control, cruise control, premium Bose audio system, navigation package and eight standard air bags (including front-passenger knee bags).

The few available options encompass perforated-leather seats (heated in front), front and rear park-assist camera and polished aluminum wheels.

Although only a few Volts were doled out to a select group of Chevrolet dealers in a half-dozen states by the end of 2010 (complete availability details can be found at www.getmyvolt.com), General Motors Corp. is planning to find homes for as many as 45,000 during the first full year on the market.

Although the Volt’s list price begins at $41,000, the car qualifies for a $7,500 federal government tax credit that effectively lowers the list price to $33,500.

That’s still pricey for most buyers, but at least some of the cost will be offset through significant fuel savings, not to mention the value attached to piloting the most electrifying vehicle on the road.

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