I was expecting the Chevy Volt to be essentially a hybrid-type experience. After all, it's an electric car with a gas engine inside somewhere. I still don't quite get the relationship between the gasoline motor and the electric drive train, beyond the fact that the gas motor doesn't actually turn the wheels, it charges the lithium ion battery that turns the wheels. Something like that. So would it be like driving, say, a Prius?
I also wanted to find out whether driving Volt would be a remarkable experience, not "remarkable" from a traditional perspective, as in: "Wow, great handling, remarkable fit and finish," but rather: "This is a remarkable vision into the future of the automobile," or perhaps the response inventors long for: "Now why in the heck didn't anyone think of this before?"
I also wondered whether people would recognize Volt as something other than just a car. This is no small point, as visual differentiation is important for a lot of owners of hybrid, clean, or green vehicles. What's the point of being green if people can't tell? And assuming people noticed, just how well informed would they be about how the car works?
Okay, so on the first point, it was a remarkable experience from the get-go. Yes, I did, in fact, have that huzzah experience from the moment I got into the thing, and realized that this was a very different vehicle from anything I'd driven hitherto. It begins with the Mac Book-white control panel, the glowing start button -- which, when depressed, makes the car deliver a "whooshing" sound to tell you it's ready to go. I'm not going to go into much else here, given the surplus of Volt reviews already out there, but the visual indicators are pretty remarkable and intuitive.
There is, for instance, a Harry Potter-esque floating green sphere that gauges one's driving efficacy: when it's in the center of a vertical range, it is big, green, and spinning slowly (which I think means the battery is working the wheels) and when you brake too hard or accelerate quickly, it drifts out of the sweet spot and loses visual imprints of little leaves. My only complaint is that you can become obsessed with driving as efficiently as possible. Instead of checking low-end torque, I was enraging drivers behind me by accelerating as smoooothly as possible and then sloooowing down gradually to keep that ball in the center.
After you finish driving, the panel displays the big green ball as a pie chart showing how much of your driving was pure electric and how much pure gas.
The car runs entirely on electric for about 40 miles, which took me around Brooklyn for a day, and then out to Long Beach. But I was worried. The guy at the garage told me I was not to take the charging unit with me, so I wondered what would happen when the battery ran out of juice. Would the car just stop and require me to flip some hidden switch to go into gas mode? Would the switchover even work? Would the car just stall on the highway and go into furniture mode?
It's worth noting that confusion about the gasoline motor in the car has been a bugbear for Chevrolet. There is, in fact, a moment in the smart new campaign from Nissan for its Leaf: "What if everything ran on gasoline?," where, at the very end, the guy for whom everything runs on gas is looking wistfully at another bloke across the street charging his Leaf, while he puts gas in the tank of a Volt.
General Motors evidently got pissed off about this, but I think they shouldn't have. Someone actually had to tell ME that the main character was filling up a Volt. I had no idea -- and I wrote about the campaign.
So, what happens when the battery is depleted is ... nothing much. The glowing green battery icon switches places with a diminutive gas-tank icon above it, so the dominant visual now becomes an icon of a gas tank, filled with glowing blue liquid instead of a battery icon filled with green liquid. And that's about it. You can hear the gasoline engine kick in, but it clearly doesn't drive the car, since it runs for a minute or so, then turns off, even as you drive. Judging from the gauge, you can drive 320 miles, give or take, with the gasoline motor serving to keep the battery charged just enough to motivate the car. Then you can either refill the tank or recharge the battery.
How would others react? I actually drove the car out to a conservative area of Long Island, in part to go to a muscle/classic car show, where (I think it's fair to say) the Volt would be a curiosity at best, and maybe even -- I don't know -- sacrilegious?
Again, I was amazed. I had to field questions constantly while driving along Lido Boulevard. One guy on a mountain bike wouldn't leave me alone. I finally got rid of him by offering to buy his bike. People yelled at me from other cars, and pedestrians crossed traffic to ask me questions about the Volt. And the funniest thing of all was that kids -- late teens -- all wanted to hear how QUIET it was. Isn't that kind of a switch? When I was a kid, it was about how loud the engine could be. More on this in a minute.
I also found that -- and this has been a problem since Toyota debuted the Prius -- people are now totally confused about which species of electric or hybrid car gets plugged in and which doesn't, since even before there were an array of hybrids, hybrid plug-ins, and pure electrics out there, people thought you had to plug them all in. I found it not too easy (especially in traffic) to explain what makes Volt unique in the field of alternative-motor vehicles.
"Okay, so you're saying you can drive on electricity and then, what -- it switches to gasoline?" "No, well, kind of, well, I mean, the gasoline doesn't actually ... I mean you can run it only on electricity for ... I think 40 miles, but there's also gasoline, which ... aw, forget it." After a while I found myself hunching down in the driver's seat, trying not to make eye contact.
As for the car show -- well, they made me park about a mile away, so that was a wash. But strolling the show, and gazing at the beautiful cars of yore led me to speculate about the future of automotive "cool." That kid who wanted to hear how quiet the car was came to mind. Maybe the most desirable car even for Gen- (whatever comes after Z) will be the one that makes absolutely no noise, and goes the furthest on whatever power source drives it. Could it be that instead of midnight drag races on Lido Boulevard, kids will be trying to see who can go farthest? NAH!