2011 Chevrolet Volt

Warren Brown
Sunday, February 13, 2011; 9:00 AM

I seldom agree with the Car of the Year awards given by magazines or panels of journalists, such as the one issued at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. But I have participated in many of those presentations and probably will do so again.

This year, however, I enthusiastically agree with the car juries (none of which I was on), including the NAIAS panel. The popular choice is the 2011 Chevrolet Volt, a plug-in electric hybrid hatchback sedan. The Volt changes everything - the car itself, the way we think about and use automobiles, and attitudes about energy conservation and fuel alternatives.

What follows is a diary of my six days in the Volt. It speaks for itself.

Feb. 4: Monica M. Murphy, General Motors manager of advanced-technology demonstration programs, arrives at my Northern Virginia home at 1:30. She is early. I am at a local fish joint sharing a meal with Michelle Dawson, a longtime friend and mover and shaker in the Nation's Capital Jaguar Owners Club. I invite her to take a look at the Volt. She's not interested.

I get home and meet Murphy. She cheerfully reviews the car's design intent and use protocol. At delivery, it has a 24-mile range on its battery monitor, which is confusing. I thought it had a full-charge range of 40 miles. I drive until the display drops to 12.

At 8 p.m., it's time to plug in the Volt to my outside 110-volt outlet. I would have preferred using the outside 220-volt outlet I had installed nearly a decade ago to "quick-charge" the old GM EV-1, equipped with heavy nickel-metal hydride batteries. But this car uses a different quick charger. The Volt comes with a much lighter, more powerful lithium-ion battery pack. But the laws of physics remain the same. You can only put so much into a fixed container in a given amount of time. A quick charge is still about three hours. A slow charge, via traditional house current, takes eight to 10 hours.

I follow plug-in protocol and connect the Volt's charging cable to house current. I then connect the cable to the car's driver-side charging port. It all takes two minutes. A green light indicates charging is in progress and brightens the dashboard. I go inside wondering what would happen if someone mischievously unplugged the charging cable.

Feb. 5: About 10 a.m., my wife, Mary Anne, shocks me. She insists that we leave the Audi A4 at home and take the Volt on our weekend shopping. This is atypical Mary Anne. The woman won't deal with anything that gets in the way of her weekend errands. She was a ball of anxiety when I suggested that we drive the all-electric Nissan Leaf sedan a month ago. What's different today?

"The Volt has a gasoline engine, doesn't it?" Mary Anne says.

Yes, it does - a 1.4-liter gasoline engine supported by a 9.3-gallon tank of required premium fuel. The engine is a generator that comes into play when the Volt's T-shaped under-floor lithium-ion battery pack discharges.

We discover the meaning of algorithm. It is affected by externalities and probabilities. After a full night's charge (10 hours in this case), the Volt's battery monitor shows a 26-mile range. What it shows is not what it means. What it means is that under current weather conditions (32 degrees Fahrenheit) with all energy-consumptive features in use (satellite radio, windshield defroster, cabin heat set at 74 degrees Fahrenheit, headlamps fully on, front-seat heat set at midrange) we theoretically can drive that far, at a speed of 100 mph, before needing that gasoline-fueled assistance.

The reality is something else. We're engaged in stop-and-go traffic from Arlington to Manassas via Route 50 - about 30 miles, according to the odometer. With five miles left on the battery-range monitor, we turn around and drive east toward the Havertys furniture store in Fairfax City. The battery-range monitor displays one mile left at arrival.

The car sits outside for two hours in dropping winter temperatures while we shop. When we return to the Volt and push its blue, center-console-mounted electric start button, the battery-range monitor still shows one mile left.

That mile passes quickly; it would have passed unnoticed had we not been watching closely for the moment of its expiration - at 38.3 miles on the odometer for this trip. The 1.4-liter gasoline engine seamlessly assumes its power-generating duties. We are impressed. We arrive home. I choose not to plug in the Volt.

Feb. 6: We are parishioners at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Georgetown. We love the church. We hate the parking and the sometimes unwelcome attention drawn by unusual cars. The Volt is unusual. We leave it at home charging.

The Packers beat the Steelers in the Super Bowl. Disappointed, we go to bed.

Feb. 7: Mary Anne has figured out that she could drive the Volt all year commuting to Glebe Elementary School, where she teaches third grade, without buying an ounce of gasoline. That beats any hybrid. At a fully optioned cost of $44,680 (reduced by a possible $7,500 federal tax break), the Volt offers more features, including a high-definition backup camera, than those available on the recently driven $93,000 Porsche Cayenne S sport-utility vehicle.

"Can we buy one?" Mary Anne says. I point to the remodeling job underway at our house. "Maybe, next year," I say.

Feb. 8: It's official. We love this car. We normally do a daily round-trip commute of less than 40 miles, well within the Volt's battery-drive range. We can take longer trips without worry, such as our 300-mile drive to our eldest daughter's home in Cornwall, N.Y., thanks to the Volt's 1.4-liter, gasoline-powered generator engine.

The car is a work of premium craftsmanship, easily among best in class. Electric-to-gas-to-electric operation is seamless. We don't need a gasoline-powered "regular" car and an all-electric environmental-statement car. With the Volt, we would have both.

Feb. 9: I stop at a filling station. That brings laughter and chiding from other customers. Typical question/ridicule: "That's supposed to be an electric car. Why the [expletive] are you filling it with premium gasoline?"

I point to the total cost of my gas fill - $1.86 for premium. I point to one of their refilling prices: $53.35 for regular.

There's no need to say anything else.

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