As Chevrolet's range-extended plug-in electric Volt gets closer to its on-sale date — sometime at the end of the year in California, Detroit and Washington, D.C. — test cars get closer to the way the real thing will look and operate. Fortunately, I got close enough to drive a preproduction Volt on the eve of the New York auto show, if only for a brief lap or two.
You start the Volt as you would many of today's gasoline-powered cars, by stepping on the brake and pressing a button. The console-mounted gear selector is just as conventional, though it's a large, whole-hand, paddle-type affair. Once in Drive, the Volt takes off confidently, but I have to admit I expected more. Electric motors are known for having prodigious amounts of torque starting at 0 rpm, but the Volt's acceleration was rather modest, at least with four adults onboard.
Electric cars are also known for being quiet, but unfortunately it was raining, making for a good deal of wet-tire noise, which tends to intrude in any car. Moving along in electric mode, no sound was loud enough to overcome the wet pavement except maybe the ventilation fan, which an engineer said we couldn't turn down or off due to control software that was "immature ." (Damn kids.)
As I traded off driving and riding along with three other people, a gauge showed the battery range was down to one mile. Sure enough, in short order the gas engine fired up. Again, with the background noise, I didn't hear it kick in initially, and I didn't feel any vibration — a good sign, considering that Chevy has been obsessing over issues of noise and vibration during the critical transition from battery to range-extended mode and back.
Once it started, though, I could hear the engine rpm rise and fall with acceleration, which sounded perfectly natural, but surprising. I suppose I expected it to turn on and run at a constant, efficient speed, but an engineer said it varies with demand from both the battery and the drive motor. Ironically, this range-extended electric sounded less obtrusive than do many gas cars equipped with continuously variable automatic transmissions, which tend to make the engine rev out of sync with the gas pedal.
The rain and watchful eyes also frustrated attempts to get a feel for the car's dynamics, but I can say it feels pretty much like any other car. The Volt is a relatively light car with a heavy battery pack situated low in the middle, which could make for a good center of gravity, but we'll need better conditions and higher speeds to know for sure. Even at these speeds, the Volt feels substantial, in a good way.
The LCD displays — which make up the instrument panel in front of the steering wheel as well as the conventional center-mounted multifunction display — are well executed and easy to understand, with graphics that are closer to video-game quality than to the usual navigation-screen menus. The touch-sensitive center controls are functional, but I prefer actual buttons. (Chevy isn't the only company experimenting with this approach, and I suspect this is a battle I'm going to lose.) I could also live without the panel's white color. The Volt will offer a darker option.
My turn in the backseat was perfectly comfortable, as there's plenty of room for adults. The center console, under which the T-shaped battery pack resides, runs from the front seats to the back, separating the two rear seats. Maybe it will help keep the kids from tormenting each other. Nah, probably not.
The car I drove was one of 80 hand-built units around the country, but the very day after my drive, March 31, the first preproduction Volt rolled off the line at Chevrolet's Detroit-Hamtramck assembly plant. That means the run of saleable cars is only a few months away. We look forward to more time in the Volt then.