We're driving in a Chevrolet Volt on the back roads of Middleborough, 45 minutes south of the city, with Tony Posawatz, vehicle line director for the Volt.
"Go ahead. Put your foot into it, throw it into a corner. It's a very drivable car," he says.
So it is. The driving experience is that of a high-quality compact sedan, which the Volt also is. Which leads to the question: "Who is the target buyer?"
"That's the $64 million question," says Posawatz.
The Volt was a fascinating vehicle when it first visited Boston as a concept car in the winter of 2007-2008. When it came back last week as a real car, it remained just as intriguing because it's the world's first mass-produced electric vehicle with extended range, in this case up to 379 miles.
And the big questions remain: Is the public ready to accept the change from gas-powered vehicles to other alternative propulsion systems? And will it appeal to a wide spectrum of buyers?
So far, Toyota's hybrid Prius remains the gold standard for such vehicles. It was the first to catch the public's attention — and acceptance — with its system that blends electric motors and gas engines, creating the widespread (mis)perception that hybrids and other alternative systems were strictly for economy.
Example: When Honda introduced a hybrid version of the V-6 Accord, it got better fuel economy than the regular gas engine version, but it also had amazing power. The buying public never figured that out or bought many hybrid Accords. So Honda went the economy route with the successful hybrid Civic.
Now it's time to consider electrics. "The 1908 Baker Electric was a premium car in its day," says Posawatz. "They sold 6,000 of them in 1912. It's taken 100 years but the Volt will break that record."
Electric cars then had many of the same characteristics as they do today. They're smooth, quiet, and give you instant torque in starting from a standstill. Of course the flip side remains true, too: Batteries still are heavy, take up a lot of space, require regular charging time, and have limited range.
Electrics also bring with them the phenomenon called "range anxiety," which simply means the angst of "Do I have enough power to get me home and does driving an electric car mean I'm on a 'short leash' all the time?"
One of the other misconceptions the Volt must overcome is that it's "another hybrid." It isn't, but it's not quite all-electric, either, and that's what makes it fascinating and how it solves the range anxiety question.
The Volt hit dealerships in seven target markets in November, part of a rolling national introduction that will bring it to Boston this fall. MSRP is $41,000 (including destination and before a $7,500 tax credit). Common options are a premium trim (leather, heated seats) for $1,395, rear camera/park assist ($695), and alloy wheels ($595).
The Volt's 149-horsepower electronic drive unit, comprised of two motors, turns the wheels nearly all the time. That system is powered by a 16-kWh lithium-ion battery- pack. Under ideal conditions, the battery pack is capable of driving the car 25 to 50 miles. After that, the on-board 1.4-liter, 84 horsepower gasoline-powered engine kicks in. It runs to generate electricity for the battery pack, and during this time can partially power the wheels with the electric motor. However, that combination provides another 300 or more miles of driving.
"Refueling can be as simple as stopping by the corner gas station or finding a power cord," says Posawatz. A traditional 120-volt plug (one is supplied with the car) can recharge the battery pack in 10 to 12 hours; a 240-volt system (think your electric dryer outlet) can do the job in about four hours. The process is simple: Attach the plug, wait for the car to run a quick check, and charging begins. A safety system prevents you from driving away without "unplugging." Interactive features allow you to track the Volt's status (charge, temperature, security) via OnStar and your smartphone or computer.
"Because I need my car charged by 5 a.m., my settings have the charger come on during the late-night off-peak hours to finish charging and pre-warming the car and battery pack at that time," says Posawatz.
Those first 25 to 50 miles thus cost roughly $1.50 to $2 per charge, depending on the cost of your electricity. Range also is affected by driving style and mode (the Volt offers Normal, Sport, and Mountain) and the amount of electrical accessories in use.
The EPA, somewhat flummoxed in finding mileage figures, rates the Volt at 93 miles per gallon "equivalent" on all-electric mode and 37 mpg after the original charge is used up. The combined figure can be anywhere in between, depending on the "extended range" miles driven.
"When I'm driving alone, I tend to rely on the heated seats more than trying to use the heater to warm all the cabin air," says Posawatz.
Instead of trying to figure out where to stash a 435-pound battery pack, Volt engineers designed the car around a 5.5-foot T-shaped pack that runs under the center of the cabin, keeping weight low for stability and allowing for good-sized front and rear crumple zones.
"When you do away with a normal engine and go electric, a lot of sins are revealed," says Posawatz. "Road noise, wind noise, any squeak or rattle is magnified. So we had to build a tight car."
Instead of normal instrumentation, the Volt has a pair of seven-inch full-color screens, one in front of the driver, a second atop the center stack. The driver's screen displays electric-only range, fuel economy, extended-range, trip information, and vehicle system details. The second is for infotainment and climate controls.
The Volt comes with an array of warranties: Eight years or 100,000 miles on the battery pack, three-year/36,000-mile bumper-to-bumper coverage, and a five-year/100,000-mile guarantee on the gasoline engine. In 2012, a cost option to certify the Volt as an "Advanced Technology-Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle" will bump the battery warranty to 10 years or 150,000 miles, and allow the car to travel in the California HOV lanes.
One of the safeguards built into the Volt is one to prevent gas from going bad. "A notice will come on the display that the car is in engine maintenance mode," says Posawatz. "Running that mode keeps all the engine parts lubricated and uses some fuel."
That brings us back to the key question: Who will buy the Volt?
"We know we'll sell the 15,000 units we're building this year," says Posawatz. "Next year, we're planning to sell 45,000 in the United States. After that, we'll build as many as people want."
With gas prices on the rise, that might mean the Volt is a car hitting the market at just the right time.