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Chevrolet Volt 2010 Review

It's hard to believe the Chevrolet Volt was born in less than half a day.  The hybrid hero of what was, until recently, the world's biggest carmaker is such a good idea that I expected it to have been created after years of painstaking research and smart thinking in a top-secret laboratory in Detroit.  It's an electric-drive car that uses a second onboard energy source to top up its giant battery pack. So it's a hybrid, but not as we know it.

One genius at GM sketched the whole thing on a single sheet of paper after being quizzed by car chief Bob Lutz about the corporation's response to the Toyota Prius.  "We reclaimed the electric vehicle from the scrapheap of history. Now the prize is within sight," says John Lockner, vice-president of planning at General Motors.

He, and everyone on the Volt team at GM starting with Lutz, have plenty of reasons to be optimistic as the countdown continues to the first Volt production car in November.  After driving the car I am also a fan. It is the single most important new car I have driven since the Honda FCX Clarity, another all-electric car that uses hydrogen from a fuel cell stack to create its electricity.

DRIVETRAIN

Just like the Clarity, and unlike the Prius, the Volt is fully electric. Its petrol engine never turns the wheels and only fires up to re-charge the giant 200-kilogram battery pack that fits in a giant T shape along the centre console and below the back seats.

The Volt will run for 64 kilometres on battery power — compared to two kilometres for a Prius — and once the 1.4-litre petrol motor goes to work it will run for as much as 600 kilometres between stops.

"It's the only electric vehicle that can be your only vehicle," says Andre Farah, chief engineer on the Volt.  I have a full-day dip into Volt-land during a visit to the Detroit Motor Show that covers everything from the basic vehicle concept to the advanced battery laboratories.  It's all done at GM's giant technical centre close to Detroit and culminates in a short drive of the car.

DESIGN

So, what about the basics? The Volt is based on the GM Cruze, which makes it a compact car with a hatchback tail.  It looks a little like the Prius and the Honda Insight hybrids because of the rules of aerodynamics, which dictate an optimum shape for the body, although GM has tried to make it a little more sporty.

It's a four-seater only, because of the battery, and trying to get much detail on the car is a waste of time.  GM is keeping its secrets until sales start in November this year, although it will all be common knowledge by the time the Volt hits Australia in 2011.  The GM people will not even reveal the size of the petrol tank, or the workings of the transmission system, or the performance or economy figures.  It will not be cheap, with a US base price of about $40,000 - probably $60,000 for Australia.

DRIVING

The Volt is a landmark car and drives extremely well.  That is a big call after less than five minutes at the wheel, and about 15 in the car in total, but the idea of an electric car that can do a Forest Gump and "run, and run, and run" is brilliant.

As a driver, the Volt is as simple and easy as any electric car.  Hit the 'start' button, wait for the right lights, then select D and go.  There is a lot of funky stuff in the Volt, from its weirdly shaped shifter to a dash display that rates the economy of your driving, but the basics are solid.

GM detuned the performance for the journalist preview, yet the car still gets along fairly niftily with a full load onboard.  It's not as sharp as a petrol car but much better than a Mitsubishi iMiev or Subaru Stella electric car.

The steering feel is just like a Corolla, the braking is not as jerky as a Prius, and the quality on the pre-production drive car is good.  It's tight for space in the back, and there are only four seats, and I worry about sun exposure from the big rear hatch.  For me, as well, it's not the best looking future car I have seen.

But the Volt is another window on the future and it lets a big breath of fresh air blow over the hybrid world.  Now I cannot wait for a real drive — something like Melbourne to Sydney.

 

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