First Drive: 2011 Chevrolet Volt (Integration Vehicle)

Don Sherman
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Jeffrey Sauger / General Motors

In the long history of hype, the Chevy Volt is the consummate media star. From its 2007 show debut, to its evolution into a practical production design, to its current status as GM's Hail Mary savior, the Volt hauls a Peterbilt's worth of baggage. Now that we've had an opportunity to drive a developmental prototype using both electrical and combustion forms of energy conversion, it's time to see if the Volt really deserves all the attention heaped upon it for the past three years.

What's Under the Skin

Volt shares key platform components with the Chevy Cruze compact due to go on sale later this year (a few months in advance of the Volt's expected late fall arrival). While exact dimensions haven't spouted forth from the information fountain, expect a 106-inch wheelbase and an overall length of about 179 inches, both essentially Honda Civic size. A notable sacrifice is passenger accommodation. While the standard compact configuration is two front buckets and space for three (in a pinch) in back, the Volt's substantial central spine for the battery box provides no rear-center seating position.

Diminished Design Drama

While the Volt represented true exterior design drama in concept form, the toning down for production has diminished its sparkle. The front end looks busy and poorly integrated. The dark beltline bands replacing the impractical transparent panels look dated. To these eyes, the standard Cruze is more palatable. While GM designers surely felt the Volt had to be a standout, ordinary consumers probably won't insist on shouting their support of electric propulsion during every last trip to the mall.

Inside Furnishings

The interior design team also ventured far afield in their attempt to celebrate the electronic age. While the mostly touch-sensitive controls are logically arrayed and pleasant to use, the displays, trim treatments, and net interior impression shows several flaws. Thankfully, this aspect of the Volt is a work in progress. The psychedelic patterns adorning the door panels and the bright white Apple-esque center stack surround will be modified, toned down, or supplemented with alternative furnishings according to Tony Posawatz, my host, the first GM employee to sign on to the Volt project, and the current vehicle line director.

At the left of the video display cluster, there's an image bearing a vague resemblance to a gasoline pump, though the gray and blued colors aren't helpful in discerning that. Posawatz suggests it's like the signal strength meter in your cell phone: more bars means more charge in your battery available for propulsion. As you go they wink off; lift off the accelerator pedal and a bar or two might come back as the driveline's regenerative braking kicks in.

On the right side there's an even weirder gauge: a slowly turning green ball decorated with leaves. This is the electric car equivalent of the tachometer. Tromp the accelerator and the display goes deep in the drain direction; lift off to coast and it rises high in the save-the-planet direction. No matter what you do, the ball turns at a slow, steady speed as long as electronic systems are awake and running.

My favorite part of the interior is the driver's seat which is firm and supportive. The backrest wraps snugly around your ribs to hold you in place for your most ambitious cornering attack. Corvettes should have it this good. The steering wheel is another GM flawed design with spokes far too wide to encourage a comfortable finger wrap of the rim.

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aflesch123
When will the automakers realize that there is a sizable market of enthusiasts who are concerned about the environment? Chevy should be hard at work on an SS version of the Volt. Plus, it seems that the hybrid powertrain would be well suited to the way enthusiasts drive -- the occasional blast up a favorite road, interspersed with the more common and sedate speeds that normal circumstances dictate
BigBlock45
Wow, with such a ringing endorsement from Sherman, I thnk I'll pass on the Volt for 2-3 years. Make my hybrid a Ford Fusion -- with a real back seat and boot!
catch-me-if-u-can
well obviously there is no middle rear-seat, just look at the size of that trunk or lack of it
artimusbill
Looks like a 1st gen Chrysler Cirrus with the rear end of a Toyota Paseo. Not too impressed. I think if they could cut 5-8k out of the price, it would do well enough. I don't know, I would rather have a small displacement turbo diesel instead of the complicated hybrid stuff.
bobsharp
At last someone explains how the Volt goes on the generator with a near depleted battery. Great.
asigel
The front endbusy and poorly integrated. The dark beltline look datedthe standard Cruze is more palatableIs there no one at GM that can design an attractive, compelling car? The body is unimaginative, forgettable. The interior has teenage graphics, a missing rear center seat, and dysfunctional steering wheel. If GM can't muster the design skills needed to produce something functional, original, and attractive, then steal from Toyota, Honda, VW, Audi. Steering wheel design should not be an issue at this point.This is the car GM and our future manufacturing base is riding on and they are still trapped in GM's traditional, miserable, low quality design. Has nothing changed? Why would anyone pay a premium for breakthrough technology so unimaginatively and poorly packaged that it gives the impression of a beige base rental fleet model? Who do they think is their market for this car? How about some wow, some Styling?I'd love a plug-in hybrid, and I'd love to buy American-not this one.

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