published Saturday, January 4th, 2014

Test Drive: Chevrolet Volt a high-powered package

The Chevrolet Volt, one of a new generation of plug-in hybrids, offers a spirited driving experience inside a practical package.
The Chevrolet Volt, one of a new generation of plug-in hybrids, offers a spirited driving experience inside a practical package.
Staff photo by Mark Kennedy

FAST FACTS

* Model: 2013 Chevrolet Volt Hatchback

* Exterior color: Black

* Interior color: Pebble Beige

* Engine: Lithium-ion electric motor, 1.4-liter gas engine

* Horsepower: 149

* Fuel economy: 98 MPG (equivalent), combined city/highway

* Dealer: Integrity Chevrolet

* Price (as tested): $42,780

Any discussion of the new breed of plug-in hybrid cars such as the Chevy Volt starts with the bottom line.

Chevrolet's hatchback returns the equivalent of 98 miles per gallon in all-electric mode according to government tests, saving the average driver a cool $6,850 in fuel costs over a five-year span (when compared to a mid-size, gasoline-powered automobile).

The Volt accomplishes this other-worldly mileage while delivering a spirited driving experience. Although its lithium-ion battery-powered motor makes only 149 horsepower, it delivers 273 pound-feet of torque. In the parlance of human athletes, the Volt has an incredibly quick first step.

But it's the Volt's auxiliary 1.4-liter, range-extending gas engine that makes it a practical choice for commuters who occasionally need to travel several hundred miles between charges. The Volt can travel about 38 miles on electric power only, while the gas engine sits in reserve to generate juice in a pinch, extending the range to about 300 miles.

To compute the true cost of owning a Volt requires a little math. Consider the MRSP, in the case of our top-of-the-line test car $42,780, minus the five-year fuel savings ($6,850) and a federal credit you may recoup at tax time ($7,500), and you come up with $28,430 (more or less) to compare against traditional, mid-sized cars. You'll have to assign your own bonus for saving the planet.

Integrity Chevrolet sales consultant Aaron Knight noted an average commuter might spend about $1.60 a day to keep a Volt charged, and might go about 900 miles between fill-ups.

Wow.

STYLING AND FEATURES

Two things jump out at you about the Volt.

A.) It's a nice looking ride. Our black test car from Integrity looked especially aggressive when compared to most hybrids which -- let's face it -- suffer from rather pronounced wimp factor.

B.) The interior is vastly more upscale that other high-mileage champs -- save perhaps the electric Tesla Model S which costs about twice as much and exists in a luxury league of its own. (Can't wait to see the new Cadillac ELR which should give Tesla some competition among luxury electric cars.)

The cockpit of our Volt tester is well furnished, with firm, leather-covered seats, a futuristic dash and gauge cluster and high-quality materials. Fit and finish inside and out is first rate.

As an accommodation to the T-shaped battery pack, the back seat is built for two passengers and leg room for back-seat passengers is consequently modest.

The Volt does offer flexible storage options however, with about 10.6 cubic feet of space available with the back seats up -- enough for a family trip to BiLo and a side trip to Home Depot thrown in for good measure. Folding the rear seats down introduces even more options.

Standard equipment includes key-less entry and ignition, 17-inch alloy wheels, heated outside mirrors, GM's MyLink infotainment interface, OnStar emergency system and LED daytime lights.

Our test car added the ($1,395) Premium Trim Pack: leather seating surfaces, heated front seats, leather wrapped steering wheel and rear-seat arm-rests. A premium speaker package from Bose ($495) and navigation ($895), pushes the price up a bit more.

DRIVING EXPERIENCE

Driving the Volt on a test loop around Chickamauga Lake, it was easy to imagine a comfortable daily commute, punctuated by short bursts of acceleration. There's something about an electric car, with its instant torque, that never fails to make me smile.

Finding a good driving position is easy and outward visibility is impressive (although the A-pillars are a bit large). The whisper-quiet operation of the electric motor would be a joy after a stressful day at work. The only noise you hear is the rush of pavement under the tires.

The four-cylinder gas engine engages seamlessly when the batteries are about 70 percent discharged, according to GM. Recharging after an average commute takes about 10 hours in your garage.

BOTTOM LINE

No matter what you hear about fuel cells and other exotic energy sources, plug-in electric hybrids with their vast fuel economy and low-maintenance drive systems are definitely here to stay. A test drive in the Volt reminds you that it will one day be considered one of the true landmark automobiles of this generation.

And that alone is enough to earn it a look.

Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6645. Follow him on Twitter @TFPCOLUMNIST. Subscribe to his Facebook updates at www.facebook.com/mkennedycolumnist.

about Mark Kennedy...

Mark Kennedy is a Times Free Press columnist and editor. He writes the "LIfe Stories" human interest column for the City section and the "Family Life" column for the Life section. He also writes an automotive column, “Test Drive,” for the Business section. For 13 years, Kennedy was features editor of the newspaper, and before that he was the newspaper’s first Sunday editor. The Times Free Press Life section won the state press award for ...

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