The Volt is Chevy's great green hope. Its fancy new propulsion system uses an electric motor and battery pack, so it promises all the zero-emissions do-goodery of a Nissan Leaf, yet it also uses a petrol engine as an on-board recharging device, so it has all the range of a traditional car.
Could the range-extended electric Volt be the car eco-minded motorists have been waiting for? We hopped inside a pre-production car ahead of its 2012 release date to find out for ourselves.
The Volt's UK price is yet to be confirmed, but, in America, it will retail for $41,000 (£25,000). The Volt will also be sold in the UK as the Vauxhall Ampera.
Back to the future
The Chevy Volt looks relatively normal in pictures, but we weren't convinced by its styling in the flesh. The car is well proportioned, but there's a certain oddness about its overall aesthetic -- it's as if it's been built by a '90s design company tasked with creating a vision of what it believes a car should look like in the 21st century.
The oddness extends to the interior. There's a funny layer of plastic that sits above the left and right sides of the dashboard, like shoulderpads on an '80s jacket. There's also a mountain of tacky-looking glossy white plastic that adorns the centre console -- think Apple ten years ago. The whole thing screams 'look at me, I'm from the future', when all we really want is a car that looks like it belongs in the present.
It's not unsual
The driving experience in the Volt is, for the most part, fairly predictable. You hop in, pull the aeroplane-throttle-style gear lever into the drive position and hit the accelerator pedal to go.
The way in which the Volt goes about its business is fairly unusual, though. The car is driven almost entirely by an electric motor, which draws power from a T-shaped battery pack mounted along the centre of the car.
That battery pack can be charged via the mains before setting off. Once the charge has been exhausted -- after 40 miles or so -- it can be recharged on the fly by a 1.4-litre, 149bhp petrol engine that powers a generator. The engine also occasionally chips in to help drive the wheels when the driver floors the throttle.
The car has three user-selectable drive modes -- normal, sport and mountain. Normal optimises the car for ordinary daily driving, while sport provides greater response from the accelerator, which is ideal for those who want to drive the Volt like a hoodlum. Mountain mode is useful when going up hills, as it tells the engine to juice up the battery more aggressively, helping to maintain a good level of charge.
We found ourselves driving the Volt mostly in normal mode, which drives the car on electric-only power at a low speed, yet fires up the petrol engine intermittently when the batteries need to be topped up or more power is required, such as when going up hills or when pulling away from traffic lights enthusiastically.
Unlike with hybrids, the engine noise is barely detectable. When activated for charging duties, it ticks over quietly, emitting the faint hum of an engine revving continuously at a couple of thousand rpm.
The unusual method of propulsion aside, the driving experience provided by the Volt is very normal. We drove the car around a circuit designed to mimic urban routes and found the experience to be very pleasant. It changes direction well, feels solid and is even quite nippy. The Volt goes from 0-60mph in around 8.5 seconds, and the majority of the electric motor's 273lb/ft of torque is available from a standstill.
Our only gripe is that the Volt's ground clearance is on the low side. It struggled to clear the extremely high speed bumps on our test circuit, although it should cope well with the ordinary speed bumps most people will encounter on the road.
Go, go, gadgets
The Volt has an abundance of electronic gizmos to play with. The main instrument binnacle behind the steering wheel is devoid of the needle-based instruments found in traditional cars, instead featuring a large, 7-inch display that shows relevant driving data.
Vehicle speed is displayed at the centre of the screen in large, clear numbers, above a text box that shows important vehicle-status messages, such as 'check your headlights' and 'low tyre pressure'.
To the left of this is a gauge that shows the car's remaining fuel level -- a combination of battery and petrol -- and the total range to empty. To the right, another gauge shows how eagerly you're braking or accelerating, which should help you modulate the pedals more gently, to maximise the driving range.
A second display, of equal size, resides on the dashboard at the top of the centre console. This provides a dizzying amount of information. Usefully, it shows the flow of power throughout the car's propulsion system, highlighting in a visual manner exactly when the engine or regenerative braking system in the wheels are recharging the battery, and the battery's state of charge.
The screen also works as a sat-nav, although we don't, at this stage, know whether it's any good, due to the fact our test car was supplied with maps for the US rather than the UK. We do know, however, that the sat-nav data is stored on a large hard disk, a whopping 30GB partition of which can be used to store music.
Music can either be ripped from a CD or USB storage drive. The car's speakers, supplied by Bose, sound relatively good for a car of this ilk, with powerful overall audio, solid bass and good all-round clarity.
We weren't so fond of the fact that the control buttons that litter the Volt's centre console are of the capacitive touch-sensitive type. We'd prefer to see mechanical controls. The buttons can be rather fiddly to operate, as there's no haptic feedback to tell you when you've actually pushed one. It's also worth noting that the buttons are completely unresponsive if you're wearing gloves, which could be annoying in winter.
The Volt's running costs have yet to be calculated outside of the US, but the car will be very inexpensive to run. Volt owners could run the car on electric power alone almost indefinitely, charging it up, utilising the 40-mile electric-only range, and recharging again when necessary.
Be warned, though, that any excess fuel in the petrol tank will be burned away every couple of weeks or so to prevent it going bad, so you'll need to visit the petrol station every now and then.
Those who drive the Volt normally, filling the tank as necessary and utilising both electric and petrol power, should find the car achieves 72.1 US miles per gallon, which works out at 86.5 UK miles per gallon. The Toyota Prius, for reference, achieves around 72.4 UK miles per gallon.
The Volt has low CO2 emissions. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, the car spits out 84g of carbon dioxide per mile, which works out at 52.5g of CO2 per kilometre. That, again, compares favourably with the Prius' CO2 emissions of 89g/km.
The Chevy Volt is an extremely exciting vehicle that promises to combine the low running costs and emissions of an electric car, with the long range of a petrol-powered vehicle. It's not particularly exciting to look at, and the user interface may be rather daunting unless you read the manual, but this is a car that could revolutionise the industry.
Edited by Charles Kloet