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Gene and the Machine: The shocking truth about the electric Volt

Post columnist Gene Weingarten test-drives the Chevy Volt.

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So this won't be a conventional automotive review. First, I'm not qualified to write a conventional automotive review, inasmuch as I know next to nothing about automobiles. Second, I am nakedly biased. I very much wanted to hate this car. It challenges my worldview.

Life is bewildering -- essentially, it's a fatal disease of uncertain course and unknown duration. If we are to make any sense of it, if we are to tame our existential terrors, we must gratefully cling to those few established truths on which we know we can rely: Day follows night. Sex causes babies. To lose weight, eat less. American cars suck.

I arrived at that last truth reluctantly but bitterly, like the millions of other boomers who long ago motored on in their automotive loyalties from Detroit to Yokohama or Dusseldorf.

My last American car was a 1985 Ford with brain damage; an irreparably faulty computer would periodically shut all systems down in mid-drive, flat-lining like a fresh corpse, the car slowly rolling to a standstill. Before that, I had a two-door Chevy that got 15 miles to the gallon and churned through brake pads as though they were pencil erasers. Seeking economy, my wife naively bought a Chevy Vega, a rattling deathtrap with an aluminum engine that warped and died at 50,000 miles, which was okay, because by then the chassis had rusted out, anyway.

American cars suck. With me, it's a mantra. I passed it along to my children in lieu of religion.

It is true that with globalization, there is less of a meaningful distinction these days between foreign cars and domestic. And yes, Detroit has been incrementally improving its products for some time. This is a splendid achievement that I've been content to applaud from a safe distance, behind the wheel of a succession of Mazdas and Toyotas and Hondas that have never once betrayed me.

But the Volt, it is said, is different. There's nothing incremental about it. It's being heralded as an overnight game-changer -- a car with an original concept and a compelling, heroic narrative: It was designed by a fanatic team of GM engineers who held fast to their vision while hounded by naysayers, even as their company was economically collapsing around them.

Some professional car reviewers have gone gaga. Dan Neil of the Wall Street Journal, the Pulitzer Prize-winning critic renowned for his jaundiced eye, unabashedly called the Volt "a spark of genius." He went on:

"A bunch of Midwestern engineers in bad haircuts and cheap wristwatches just out-engineered every other car company on the planet."

Not good, not good at all for my worldview. But also not an insurmountable obstacle. Mr. Neil had one handicap I don't have: a starting point of impartiality.

About the time I read his review, The Post asked me if I'd like to do one of my own. Why, yes, I said. Yes, I would be delighted to.


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