"Lesley, there’s something weird going on in your backyard.”
Reassuring her that it was merely a new hybrid car tucked in behind the house where it could safely re-charge, I apologized and turned back towards the warm comfort of my interrupted dreams.
"But … it's making a noise!"
I trudged into the yard and discovered the 2012 Chevrolet Volt chirping away like an angry bird. The charging draw had proved too much for the 100-amp service of my 99-year-old home, and had blown a breaker. Cursing, I fed an extension cord through the basement window, where I found an outlet that proved mutually acceptable to both house and car.
It was an inauspicious beginning to a week spent with a car whose introduction has been fraught with misinformation and delays.
After a maelstrom of controversy, replete with accusations of lies and deception, General Motors finally released the long-overdue Chevrolet Volt.
And wouldn't you know it — the press fell all over themselves in a groundswell of adulation, showering it with accolades across the continent, many proclaiming it "Car of the Year."
I must admit my curiosity was piqued as much by the controversy as by the Volt's miraculous claims of un-hybrid-like performance. Would it be the game-changing technical wonder that would re-establish GM as a ground-breaking player, or just an over-hyped, over-priced novelty? Well, neither. And both.
Admittedly, I'm far from the targeted demographic for the Volt. Sure, there are lazy weekends where my driving consists of no more than puttering between my house, the gym and the grocery store. But living an hour from Hwy. 401 means that regular trips to and from the city to exchange press cars, runs to the airport and frequent visits north of Hwy. 7 to visit my favourite stable add hundreds of kilometres to my weekly travels.
With its range of 50 to 80 km of pure electric travel, the Volt's ideal driver is the urban dweller whose daily commute is less than 20 km. However, the Volt's claim to fame is of course, the back-up internal combustion engine that completely alleviates the range-anxiety of its purely electric counterparts. The drivetrain consists of three parts: a large 149-hp electric motor, a smaller 74-hp motor/generator, and the same 1.4-litre gasoline engine found in the Chevy Cruze.
Bearing no resemblance to the sleek, Camaro-esque concept car that debuted in 2007, the Volt looks like the result of a consummated alliance between a Toyota Prius and a Chevy Cruze. Deep-sided and truncated of butt, the Volt sports a blunt nose featuring a sealed grille finished in brushed metal etched-like circuitry. Pop the rear trunk lock and the Volt reveals itself to be a practical hatchback.
Though not conventionally sleek nor remotely sexy, the Volt still has some presence thanks to futuristic head and tail lamps, piano black trim and rear spoiler. Aesthetics aside, the Volt's appearance is an exercise in form following function — every aspect of its exterior is designed to be as aerodynamically slippery as possible to reduce drag.
The cockpit is a 2 + 2 configuration, but it's bisected by a central spine containing the battery pack that runs the full length of the cabin, greatly compromising rear seating space. Lovers of futuristic gadgetry will appreciate the graphic imagery and slick, buttonless centre stack, which appear to have sprung from a Steve Jobs-style creative well.
The first two days, I managed to drive the Volt solely on electric power without burning a drop of gas, nor emitting a single noxious particle. Using roughly 10.3 kWh of electricity, a day's driving probably cost me less than one of Starbuck's pretentious coffees. Unlike regular hybrid vehicles that generally switch over to gasoline power above 50 km/h, the Volt can travel at any speed in electric mode and will do so until the battery runs out.
Used as a daily runabout, it's conceivable one would rarely have to visit the pumps at all. In which case, though, the engine is programmed to start up at least once a year to cycle through the tank's gasoline, and ensure that lubricating fluids are circulated. Interestingly, I've experienced the surreptitious checking-out by other drivers while driving expensive luxury cars, but driving the Volt earns you the once-over from Prius owners.
But what I really wanted to know was how it would perform on a long road trip. During a planned visit to Sarnia — a round trip of roughly 870 km — with three friends, the Volt proved a capable, if unremarkable, method of travel. After leaving from Peterborough, we ran out of electric power shortly before Oshawa. The rest of the journey consumed an overall 7.9 L/100 km of fuel, but with the gas-free travel factored in, averaged out to be about 5.52 L.
Driving the Volt under gasoline power isn't much different than driving the Chevy Cruze, albeit with a lot less space. It's pleasant, but not sporty, comfortable, but with very little feedback.
Although it proved itself more than capable of a range-anxiety-free road-trip, that's not what this car is about. At more than $40,000, the Volt's a bit pricey for a commuter car (although there is an $8,230 rebate here in Ontario), a role the Cruze would fill better — and at half the cost. But as a gas-free urban runabout, the Volt is an impressive step in the right direction.