The new electric Chevrolet is nothing extraordinary to look at, but the price and ultimately what is under the bonnet set it apart from a conventional family sedan.
Chevrolet Volt: It's what's on the inside
Never mind that its exterior isn't as avante garde as the underlying technology deserves. Never mind that a few interior trim bits - notably the plastic on the inside of the rear doors - is not up to snuff in a car that will, after all, cost as much as a baby BMW 3 Series - the electric Chevrolet Volt will start at US$41,000 (Dh150,535); add the entire options list and the price rises to about $45,000 (Dh165,222). And, especially, pay no mind to the nascent scandal that sees, amongst others, Edmunds.com proclaim that "GM Lied: Chevy Volt Is Not a True EV" (see geek speak below for a more indepth look at the debate). It matters not a whit.
What matters is the following. Despite my repeated attempts - full throttle acceleration from stoplights, the air conditioning going full blast and even unnecessarily lighting up seat warmers - to be as profligate a wastrel as possible, the Volt I tested eked out 67.8km in pure electric mode before the batteries gave up. That's more than the 64km General Motors has been promising since the car's inception, more than the rumoured 48km of electrical range that some naysayers have been spreading over the internet and, most importantly, more than most urban workers typically drive in their daily commute. Which means - like a true EV - the Chevrolet Volt will consume no petrol during regular use. Of course, what sets the Volt apart from its EV competition - the Nissan Leaf, BMW's Mini E and the Mitsubishi i-MiEV - is that once its main battery depletes its supply of excitable electrons, the Chevrolet doesn't become the proverbial boat anchor and require eight hours of recharging before continuing on its way. For those needing a refresher on Volt technology, once the 16 kilowatt-hours of lithium-ion battery power are depleted, the onboard 1.4L Ecotec petrol engine fires up and, as GM's engineers are even more adamantly now pointing out, powers a generator that feeds the big 111-kilowatt traction motor without - with one specific exception - ever being connected directly, or indirectly, to the wheels.
So what does this all mean? It means that, as an electric car with a practical range, it's a viable option for Masdar City, as Abu Dhabi's clean energy company Masdar moves towards more commercial electric vehicles for the project. But if you wanted to take a weekend trip to, say, Dubai or Liwa, the longer distance wouldn't be an issue.
It certainly feels, drives and responds like a true electric vehicle. The electric motor, for instance, is all but silent. There's no gear whine, no buzzing and, of course, no exhaust roar. And, contrary to expectations, there is no real acclimatisation process needed. Within minutes, the Volt's silence turns from eerie to normal and, perhaps even more surprisingly, welcome.
Indeed, one of the reasons why the Volt requires so little acclimatisation is that it feels, well, so normal. The brakes, despite being tied into the electric propulsion system, feel completely conventional with none of the lurching common to the regenerative braking systems standard to all hybrids and EVs.
That competent behaviour is backed up by more than adequate acceleration. The traction motor's 111kW translate into 149hp that, in and of itself, would provide decent, but not scintillating performance. But as electric vehicle proponents eagerly point out, an electric motor's advantage is its prodigious low-end torque; in the Volt's case, 370Nm available from zero rpm. The result is zero-to-100kph acceleration in a little under nine seconds; again, not scintillating by Ferrari or even Corvette standards, but perfectly in line with the conventional family sedans the Volt hopes to supplant. If you're looking for a qualitative comparator for the Volt's performance, think Malibu V6.
Ditto for the handling that, despite the Volt weighing in at a fairly hefty 1,715kg (the batteries alone chime in at about 200 kilos), feels light and responsive, if not outright sporty. The MacPherson-strut front and rear torsion beam suspension - firm, yet malleable - provides an almost European combination of ride and handling. The same goes for the rack-and-pinion steering that feels completely conventional. The Volt may be first and foremost an EV but, as GM's marketing mavens will be pointing out in its TV ads, this highest-tech Chevy is "more car than electric."
The most impressive aspect of the Volt's bearing, however, is neither its power or its handling, but rather than the sheer sophistication of its entire drivetrain. This is a complicated automobile, possessed of no less than three clutches, a set of planetary gears, two electric motors (one that doubles as a generator), a petrol engine, a huge battery pack and enough computers and electrical subsystems to control a space shuttle.
Yet, they all work together in a seamless syncopation, the envy of any other electrified car I have tested. Indeed, the most impressive thing about the Volt is that, when the main battery is finally depleted, it is almost impossible to tell when the petrol engine has fired up to start producing electricity. There's absolutely no lurching from the drivetrain and, unless you're cruising at some seriously illegal speeds, even the petrol engine is, well, eerily silent. I know, because when the battery charge meter starter indicated incipient petrol engine startup, I eliminated all other sources of noise - attenuating the stereo, shutting off the air conditioning system and even shushing the other occupants - and still could not hear that little 1.4L Ecotec internally combusting. Only when you floor the throttle does the four-banger rev high enough to be heard. In all but the harshest of circumstances, there's absolutely no sound from the engine compartment.
Need further proof of the Volt's bona fides? After the main battery ran out at the 67.8km mark, I needed to travel an additional eight kilometres to reach our final destination, a total - that I only add for emphasis and not because I don't trust your mathematical abilities - of 75.8km in all. The Volt's onboard computer registered that we had consumed 0.1 gallons (and those puny American ones, at that) of gasoline. Yes, a 10th of a gallon of gasoline to drive almost 80 Kilometres.
So regardless of purity of design or the semantics of whether it's an EV, an extended-range electric vehicle or even a gloried hybrid as the headline-seeking Edmunds.com contends, the Volt is an amazing accomplishment and, by far, the most practical and accomplished alternative to the conventional automobile yet.