Publisher Paul Eisenstein gets a drive of the 2011 Chevrolet Volt.

Few automobiles have ever received the hype and hoopla of the Chevrolet Volt, but now, almost exactly three years after it first rolled onto the stage at the 2007 Detroit Auto Show, the critical question is whether the production version will live up to expectations.

Most folks will have to wait until later this year to find out; the 2011 Chevy Volt won’t officially reach showrooms until sometime during the fourth quarter of this year.  But after doing some pleading and offering up our first-born male child, finally landed the opportunity to drive a near-ready Volt prototype on a recent, bitterly cold Detroit morning.

We met Andy Farah, the project’s chief engineer, out at the Vehicle Engineering Center, or VEC, a towering blue facility that provides a commanding view of the sprawling General Motors Technical Center, in the Detroit suburb of Warren.  After sipping some tea and getting a quick “pre-flight” briefing, we eagerly jumped into the driver’s seat of the Volt prototype.

A little background is probably useful.  Volt is, at its heart, a gasoline-electric vehicle.  But it has some distinct differences from other hybrids, like Toyota’s popular Prius.  The Japanese model has a very small nickel-metal hydride battery pack that is primarily used to recapture energy lost during braking and coasting, power then reused during acceleration. Prius – ad other conventional hybrids — can only drive for short distances and low speeds on battery power alone.

Light at the end of the tunnel as GM gets ready to bring the 2011 Chevrolet Volt to market.

Not so the Chevrolet Volt, which is designed to be powered solely by its large lithium-ion battery pack for up to 40 miles and at speeds up to 90 mph.  But unlike pure electric vehicles – such as the upcoming Nissan Leaf – Volt can keep going when the batteries run down.  At that point, its compact four-cylinder engine automatically fires up.  In an unusual design move, that gasoline-powered engine acts like a generator, sending power to the electric motors that drive Volt’s wheels.

The key takeaway is that this combination eliminates the so-called “range anxiety” associated with battery-electric vehicles, which are expected to deliver no more than 100 or so miles per charge.  Sure, Volt can only get 40 before the batteries are run down, but that’s enough, data suggest, to more than satisfy the typical daily driving needs of 70% of American motorists.  (And that’s why GM has chosen to dub Volt an Extended-Range Electric Vehicle, or E-REV, rather than a plug-in hybrid.)

Once inside the prototype, Farah cautioned us that this early model still had a few bugs: including a sticky driver’s window and interior detailing that wasn’t yet up to production standards.  The “operating system,” the software designed to make everything work, was Gen 11, meanwhile, two generations behind the latest version.  But if our morning drive was any indication of what’s to come, the 2011 Chevrolet Volt could charge up the market for battery vehicles.

Hit the Chevrolet Volt’s Start button and the initial experience is similar to that of a more conventional hybrid: all sorts of dials and gauges light up and a little warning tone finally indicates you’re ready to go, once you slip the large shift lever into “gear” (which engages Vol’s single-speed transmission).

Whitacre addresses the gathering after the first Chevrolet Volt battery came off the line at the GM Brownstown Battery plant in Brownstown Township, Michigan Thursday, January 7, 2010. The facility is the first lithium ion battery pack manufacturing plant in the U.S. operated by a major automaker. X10SN_SN011 (Photo by Steve Fecht for General Motors) (01/07/2010)

The first battery pack for the 2011 Chevrolet Volt rolled off a new Michigan line, earlier this month. Shown here with GM Chairman Ed Whitacre.

Some years back, I was lucky enough to have dinner with the last man to walk the moon, Gene Cernan, and he mentioned the most surprising thing about sitting on the lunar surface was the complete silence.  While driving a Chevrolet Volt doesn’t quite match that experience, I was just as surprised by the total lack of noise – until we pulled away from the VEC and began to hear snow crunching under our tires.  Even under full throttle there was nothing more than a modest whine from the E-REV’s motor.

In normal mode, Volt delivered reasonable acceleration, launching from 0 to 60 in what we estimated to be around 10 seconds.  But switched to Sport mode we got an unexpected jolt.  Electric motors deliver maximum wheel-spinning torque the moment they start to turn, and with Volt, that translates into a very sporty launch feel and 0 to 60 times of about two seconds quicker.

Farah had intentionally given our prototype Volt just a limited charge, just enough so that we could experience the vehicle on battery power then have it automatically transition to extended-range mode – a fancy way of saying its inline-four-cylinder internal combustion engine fired up.  The transition was all but seamless and even with the engine running, the cabin remained surprisingly quiet.

Once the gasoline engine fires up you can’t go back to EV, or battery, mode, Farah explained.  But, like more conventional hybrids, the Chevrolet Volt will regenerate braking and coasting energy and use that to assist the I-4 gas engine during acceleration, further reducing fuel consumption.

We didn’t get much of an opportunity to push Volt to test handling, so we’ll have to wait until later this year for a more complete driving review, but we did find that there’s a nice direct feel to the electric steering and you feel well connected to the road.

GM designers made a number of changes to the original Volt prototype, many of them to improve aerodynamics -- which will yield better range.

When the original Chevy Volt concept car was unveiled, in January 2007, it boasted a truly distinctive design that, much like the Prius, gave it a stand-out appearance that wouldn’t be confused with more conventional small cars.  Since then, GM engineers have made a number of modifications, much of that designed to enhance aerodynamics – yielding about five miles more on battery power than the original design would have gotten.  As a result, the production version of Volt won’t be quite as distinctive, but it’s still visually a standout.

Making allowances for some prototype interior parts, the E-REV’s cabin is well outfitted, with a high-tech feel that’s sort of iPod-on-wheels.  Most switches and knobs, for example, have been replaced with touch-sensitive controls, though there are small bumps to give a driver some tactile feedback.  The one drawback to the interior is the limited headroom in the rear, though there’s plenty of backseat legroom.

As most hybrid owners have discovered, there’s a learning curve, especially if you want to maximize mileage.  The curve will be even more significant with mre advanced vehicles: plug-in hybrids, E-REVs and pure battery-electric vehicles, or BEVs.

For one thing, you’ll have to charge up, most likely overnight, drawing power from any AC outlet, though GM will encourage Chevrolet Volt buyers to install a 220-volt quick charger that will “refill” the batteries in just a few hours.  (The automaker is lining up partnerships with a number of major utilities around the U.S. to make it easier to get those chargers installed.)

Owners will also learn that 40 miles is an estimated average on battery power.  If you have a heavy foot and drive like we did with the Volt prototype, you’ll get less mileage per charge.  Range on battery power also will be impacted by a driver’s use of headlights and climate control.  Electric heating draws a lot of current.

Will Volt turn on potential buyers?  If our drive in the prototype was any indication, it likely will.  It’s well suited to the mass of American commuters.

In normal mode the Volt's acceleration is acceptable, but it comes to life in Sport mode.

The real question is whether motorists will be turned off by Volt’s price tag.  While Chevy isn’t saying, it’s expected to bring the E-REV in somewhere around $40,000 – before a $7,500 federal tax credit, which would translate into the low $30,000 range, still well above a comparable model with a conventional drivetrain.

Of course, rising gas prices could enhance the appeal of the 2011 Chevrolet Volt.  At current fuel costs, electricity is a bargain, and if the pump hits $4 a gallon, you’ll spend barely a tenth as much per mile on electricity.  Considering the vast majority of U.S. motorists could go months without a visit to the gas pump, that alone may prove to be an unbeatable proposition.

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