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

Post columnist Gene Weingarten test-drives the Chevy Volt.

Muhahaha.

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In a sense, the Volt isn't doing anything scientifically groundbreaking. It's not the first electric car -- you can Google up photos of women in bustles, petticoats and parasols riding around in goofy-looking electrics at the turn of the last century. And of course it's not the first hybrid, a technology that for years has been delivering exceptional gas mileage to cars such as the Toyota Prius and the Honda Insight by efficiently switching between gas and electric power.

What makes the Volt the Darling of Detroit is that it has been reverse-engineered to match the perverse American psyche. Americans hate buying gas but love to drive. We definitely want to stick it to the sheikhs, and in the process maybe save the planet, so we want cars that run on sunshine, twigs and happy thoughts. But these cars also have to kick some ass. And be able to make an impulsive 90-mile run to Philly when we suddenly have a hankering for cheese steak. And we don't want to worry about hunting for twig refueling stations along the way.

All of that is what the Volt is theoretically designed to deliver.

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The Volt is an all-electric car, with an asterisk. You can plug it in overnight -- even to the same sort of dinky wall outlet that runs your coffee maker -- and by morning, the car's battery is fully charged. It's ready to power the Volt's two electric motors, which will carry you 30 or 40 miles on that wall juice alone. If your life is circumscribed by a daily commute of 40 miles or less -- this applies to about three-quarters of Americans -- you can run this car without ever using even a teaspoon of gas, at the cost of about a buck fifty a day in electricity. But if you really, really want that cheese steak, you can get it, too.

The Volt's dainty gasoline engine doesn't usually power the car directly; it acts primarily as a generator to recharge the battery, which keeps the electric motors going another 300 miles or so after that initial charge is exhausted. Running on gas only, albeit premium, the Volt's motors still generate power at a respectable 37 miles to the gallon.

This versatility is the insight that separates the Volt from any other car ever made -- and, most significantly, from its equally new competitor, the cheaper, greener, fuddier-looking Nissan Leaf. The Leaf is purely electric, running on a battery from which Nissan engineers impressively have coaxed a 100-mile range. Their gamble is that our thirst for gas savings and eco-tech will outweigh a considerable downside: When the Leaf is out of juice, you're out of options. Even partial recharging takes time -- at least 30 minutes, and only if you can find access to special, high-voltage charging stations. That trip for cheese steak might require some fitful naps along the way. In Detroitspeak, this uncertainty is called "range anxiety." The Leaf has it. The Volt doesn't.

How daunting is it? The Leaf's GPS display puts your car in the center of a circle with a hundred-mile radius, with dots blinking the location of any quick-charge stations. It's a nifty trick but seems like a tacit confession of weakness. Do we really want to drive with the on-edge mind-set of air-traffic controllers? GM is banking that we don't.

Nissan and manufacturers of other all-electric cars -- Tesla Motors, for example, and Ford, which will roll out an all-electric Focus this year -- are gambling on a quick expansion of a nationwide high-voltage infrastructure: businesses, commercial parking lots and gas stations that will offer quick charges free or at a fee. That would help the Volt, too, but is far less essential. Like Leaf owners, Volt owners can buy a 220-volt home charging station. It looks like a vacuum cleaner and costs about $1,500 installed. That reduces charge time to about four hours.

If the Volt proves to be a triumph, then, it will be a triumph not so much of innovation as of the quieter virtues of pragmatism and compromise. Still, this would still be no small victory for an American carmaker. Remember that the American carmaker responded to the threat of smaller, cheaper, better, more economical foreign cars in the 1970s by taking a long, hard look at its fleet of behemoths, nodding sagely, and then adding spiffier "landau roofs."


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