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

Post columnist Gene Weingarten test-drives the Chevy Volt.


Let's say, for the sake of argument, that the Volt represents a renaissance for good, old American know-how. As a loyal American, shouldn't I want to love it, even at the cost of a severe body blow to my sense of an ordered universe?

I should. Or, at least, I should try to put myself in the mood to be receptive to considering the possibility of liking it just a little. Which is why, right now, just before my first test-drive of the Volt, I am attempting to build an electric motor from scratch.

The homely tools lie before me: two jumbo-size safety pins, a length of wire, a crayon, a flashlight battery, a pair of screws, three magnets from a toy set, and a nail file.

The Web says a moderately handy person can build this in 10 minutes: a whirring, humming motor based on timeless principles of electromagnetism, the very technology at the center of the Volt. That's my goal: to feel a small, microcosmic surge of that American can-do spirit.

Indeed, the superstructure takes mere minutes. When I'm done, it looks like it's supposed to look: a tight wire coil on an axle over a magnet stack. But it's not spinning. It's as lifeless as a flat-lined, brain-dead 1985 Ford.

A little tinkering should get it humming, I figure. I rewire it. I reposition the magnets. I resecure the battery connections. I try larger safety pins, then smaller safety pins, then, in desperation, bobby pins.

Three hours later, my motor is still inert. Angry and frustrated, I head out for my first test-drive of the Volt.


It feels opulent. The interior is handsome, the seats buttery, the steering tight and responsive.

Volts are hard to come by -- only 10,000 will be sold in 2011 -- so GM was parsimonious about doling out early test-drives to automotive writers. For the most part, these were five- or 10-minute, chaperoned events for which writers queued up. But I wangled a guarantee of seven hours alone in the car over four days, a concession so huge that I was initially asked not to reveal the source of my car, lest a stink about favoritism be raised by the National Fraternity of Serious Auto Writers. This stricture was eventually relaxed, so I am now permitted to disclose that the car was lent to me personally, but not as authorized corporate policy, by a GM executive.

I'd like to think that this decision was based on a profound respect for the extreme fabulousness of my professional oeuvre, but I suspect it had more to do with the promise of a cover story in this magazine. And also because GM must know I am a dolt, car-wise. I suspect it occurred to the company that, given enough time with the car, a more knowledgeable reviewer than I would be far more likely to find any soft spots.

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