The Truth About Cars » Take Two http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. Tue, 09 Dec 2014 15:05:01 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=4.0.1 The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars no The Truth About Cars editors@ttac.com editors@ttac.com (The Truth About Cars) 2006-2009 The Truth About Cars The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars » Take Two http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/wp-content/themes/ttac-theme/images/logo.gif http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com Review: 2011 MazdaSpeed3 Take Two http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2011/08/review-2011-mazdaspeed3-take-two/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2011/08/review-2011-mazdaspeed3-take-two/#comments Fri, 19 Aug 2011 20:52:34 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=408085 The regular Mazda3 is already one of the best-handling choices in the small car market and you can get it with either a revvy little two-litre engine or a torquier 2.5L mill with 167 horses. For a front-wheel-drive compact, 167 ponies should be plenty. I mean, what kind of a lunatic would you have to […]

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The regular Mazda3 is already one of the best-handling choices in the small car market and you can get it with either a revvy little two-litre engine or a torquier 2.5L mill with 167 horses. For a front-wheel-drive compact, 167 ponies should be plenty. I mean, what kind of a lunatic would you have to be to want more power than that?

Wait a minute. I’m a lunatic!


Luckily, for those of us who’ve brained our damage, there’s the Mazdaspeed3, and my goodness but doesn’t it look like it’s just escaped from a loonie-bin for mentally imbalanced fish? I liked the old Mazdaspeed3 quite a bit simply because, apart from the bulging hood and over-sized exhaust pipe, there weren’t many clues to its riotous performance. In short: it was a bit of a sleeper.

The redesigned model is not a sleeper. It yells. It’s so far from subtle, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Lady Gaga wearing one as a hat in her next music video.

To the already controversial Nagare style treatment of the Mazda3 hatch have been added the hot-hatch garnishes of +1 wheel size and big spoiler: these are the usual cheddar and bacon which transform humdrum hamburgers into artery-clogging eats par excellence.

Unfortunately, they’ve also grafted on a – admittedly functional – hoodscoop. This sort of thing is akin to the slice of beetroot that Australians insist on putting on their burgers. It’s fine for rough-and-tumble Outback types (i.e. Subaru), but a Mazda with a hoodscoop is just plain weird.

And don’t get me started on that lower grille treatment. Is it meant to resemble gills? Am I supposed to shave with it? Either way, it’s all very shouty; this car might as well have an all-caps “TURBOOO” down the side in six-foot-high mid-90s pastel lettering.

Thing are equally juvenile in the interior, where Mr. Diesel and Mr. Walker have apparently been filming a Coke Zero commercial. Red stitching on black leather is one thing, little red-and-black bubbles and swirls on the dashboard trim, door insets and seat cushions is another. Still, once you’re sitting on the seats, you won’t have to look at them.

With regard to the interior instrumentation and layout, it’s a Mazda3 hatch: everything that works in the regular car works here, and it’s all very nicely laid-out and simple to use. One caveat, there appears to be a small commemorative stamp celebrating cartography or something stuck to the upper instrument binnacle. Oh hang on, that’s the navigation system.

Still, it’s usable and Mazda bundles the Navi together with their excellent adaptive front lighting system and a thundering BOSE stereo. All this technology does end up turning the steering wheel into a typewriter (18 buttons!), but after just a few days I could find everything I needed without taking my eyes off the road. Which was good.

Two hundred and eighty foot-pounds of torque at just 3000 rpm. That’s a whole lotta cowbell. In a recent review of the Mazda2, I likened that car’s leisurely attitude to acceleration to that of a small dog leashed to a fat person. The Mazdaspeed3 is… quite different.

Forget Jinba Ittai. Driving this car is like taking a Rottweiler the size of a Clydesdale for a walk. There’s a lot of power (263 hp) and, hey, you’re in charge of it right? Well, sort of.

At some point, you’re going to want to tickle the loud pedal, and at that point the Mazdaspeed3 is going to shout, “Squirrel!” and shoot forward in any number of directions, taking your arm with it. To combat this tendency, Mazda’s engineers have fitted a choke chain: boost is limited in the first three gears dependent on steering angle, and there’s a torque-sensing limited slip diff. Has it worked? Have they tamed the torque steer?

Nnnnnnnnnnno.

Now if you’ve read up to this point, you may be thinking that I didn’t like this car. You may be postulating, “So, you’re saying it’s ugly and a bit crude and kind of a spaz when it comes to putting the power down. Why should I buy this thing again?” Well, I’ll tell you: the Mazdaspeed3 is worth every red cent because it’s capital-F, capital-U, capital-N, double underline, two stripes of highlighter, sprinkle it with glitter: FUN.

Never mind tenths of a second at the Nerd-burgring, never mind 0-60 times and skidpad g’s and all the other quantitative nonsense we use to determine which car is best. The Mazdaspeed3 is a great car because the first time I gave it the beans it elicited from me a raucous bark of laughter. Yes, the ‘Speed3 might better suit a straight-jacket than a car-cover, but I couldn’t wait to get out and drive it.

The ‘Speed3 grips like a cat on a curtain and shakes a tail feather on throttle lift-off. It surges forward with sudden great big gobs of torque and in third gear you can pass anything up to and including tachyons.

From that point on it was a constant mission to find excuses to take the ‘Speed3 out on any number of chores. I would nip down to the grocery store to buy milk and return home with cheese instead, just so I could be sent back by a tutting wife. I called long-lost out-of-town friends to arrange visits that would let me bomb down the twisting highways. I even volunteered to go to IKEA.

At no point did my untamed steed do less than plaster a big stupid grin on my face every time. From twin exhaust pipes, it sounded its barbaric yawp across the twining network of blacktop as lesser econoboxes huddled together like clumps of frightened beige sheep.

Yes, the WRX is a more surefooted companion, and yes, the Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart is a compelling alternative to the ‘Speed3 in driving dynamics and in the looks department as well. But when we finally run out of oil, and you grow up to drive a nice sensible electric mid-size sedan, this is the one hot hatchback that your kids will be asking if you had the chance to drive.

There’s been much chat about the future of Mazda and whether or not their focus on driving pleasure will survive ever-more stringent fuel economy regulations. If we’re lucky, Mazda will still be building a car with as much character as this in the future.

Hell, of course we’re lucky: they’re building it right now.

Mazda provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review.

Do you have the need for MazdaSpeed? IMG_1247 IMG_1248 IMG_1249 IMG_1250 IMG_1251 IMG_1252 Zemanta Related Posts Thumbnail

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Review: Cadillac CTS-V Coupe, Take Two http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2011/05/review-cadillac-cts-v-coupe-take-two/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2011/05/review-cadillac-cts-v-coupe-take-two/#comments Mon, 09 May 2011 21:18:29 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=394362 If Lord Acton were alive today, I’m sure he’d say: “Power tends to corrupt, absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great cars are almost always bad cars.” I believe it this philosophy that Cadillac hopes will rejuvenate Cadillac, a brand that only recently started taking performance seriously but is already achieving some surprising results. Already our own […]

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If Lord Acton were alive today, I’m sure he’d say: “Power tends to corrupt, absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great cars are almost always bad cars.” I believe it this philosophy that Cadillac hopes will rejuvenate Cadillac, a brand that only recently started taking performance seriously but is already achieving some surprising results. Already our own Michael Karesh has got his kicks with the CTS-V wagon, Niedermeyer has drooled over the sedan and Jack Baruth has killed the track at Monticello in both this coupe and the sedan… it might be safe to say Caddy has a winner on their hands. Still, why not snag the 556 HP V Coupe for a week to see how it handles some California road testing? What’s the worst that could happen?

In 1999 General Motors set the tone for Cadillac’s renaissance with the Evoq show car. Somehow finally realizing that there was frankly no way a Catera, Seville or Deville could ever compete with BMW or Mercedes on any level what-so-ever, the CTS-V, STS-V and XLR-V erupted out of some hitherto unknown Detroit volcano. The first trio of unique Cadillac products were angular and brash at a time where oval was the shape du jour. Sadly the STS-V never achieved the sales success Cadillac dreamt and while I loved the Corvette-based XLR, it had a tiny flaw: a six-figure price tag and the heart of an anemic squirrel (compared to its C6 Corvette cousin). Consequently, the XLR sold like ice to an Eskimo. Packing a (comparatively) demure 443HP Cadillac Northstar V8 into the Corvette chassis, the XLR-V started in the nosebleed section at $101,300 (2008 model year.) For the CTS-V, Cadillac perhaps rightly corrected the performance formula by jamming a thoroughly corrupt 556hp Corvette-derived engine into bespoke Cadillac coupé chassis starting at a lowly $63,465. This is not your father’s Cadillac nor is it available in Mary Kay pink.

Some observers may find Cadillac’s all-angular look distasteful, but I rather love it, especially in this, the ultimate expression of the edgy “Art & Science” ethos, with its ginormous triangular rump finished off with coffee-can sized twin center pipes. Bling-baby-bling. I think a Cadillac should be bold, and since this is the re-invention of the brand (and frankly Cadillac is unlikely to ever again play in the ultra-luxury playground with Rolls and Bentley) styling should set the American wares apart from the masses. Cadillac’s designers are apparently of my same mindset and styled the CTS coupe into something beyond bold: brash. And guess what? It works. I wouldn’t even mind if the CTS got even crazier in the next refresh. Whatever you think of the CTS-V coupe, it doesn’t look like anything else, and that’s a good thing. In every cloud there’s some moisture waiting to rain on your parade however: while the design is avant-garde, the fit and finish is merely pedestrian. Can’t have everything I’m told.

As Michael pointed out in his review of the CTS wagon, the interior of the V is nice, but it’s not as upscale as some of the competition, and since our Coupé tester rang in at over 70-large (twice the price of the base CTS sedan) it’s a bit of a stretch. This is not a problem unique to Caddy however. Any manufacturer that pimps out a base model to this extent suffers from main-stream interiors tied to a premium price tag. For V-duty, Cadillac kept the base CTS’ stitched dash and doors, but continued to eschew the cowhide in favor of pleather on the aforementioned panels which is a shame when most brands dish-up more moo in their performance models.

The slightly more comfortable $3,400 Recaro seats with Alcantara inserts, $300 Alcantara wrapped steering wheel and shifter and $600 dark stained wood accents our tester came with are all optional on the V, so base buyers will find an interior largely the same as the base CTS coupe except for the shiny black center console unique to all V models. Sadly the glossy trim scratches easily and doesn’t, in my opinion, really look quite as good as the silver in the plebian model. Speaking of Alcantara, use of the faux-suede on the wheel looks and feels fantastic but in terms of durability I have my doubts. Alcantara pills as it wears on some surfaces which is a shame because the fuzzy steering wheel almost took my mind off the fact that the Nissan Quest minivan I had the week before had better sport grips. All Vs come standard with the $1,300 gas guzzler tax, a dubious piece of standard equipment to be sure.

 

As Michael pointed out in his CTS-V wagon review, other flavors of CTS suffer from slightly cheap door handles, but fortunately the V coupe like all other coupe models receive some dainty round door “buttons”  instead. The electrically operated door latches are an interesting touch despite not being really any more convenient than traditional releases. On the downside since the mechanism is operated by electricity a manual bypass must still be installed and GM located this emergency handle in a fairly visible spot in the footwell. Taken as a whole it’s more of a novelty than a true feature as the exterior handles aren’t executed nearly as well as the interior.

As often happens during the “coupification” of a sedan, the CTS loses some space vs its sedan counterpart. In the CTS, however, since the wheelbase is unchanged from the sedan and the dash doesn’t move rearward, rear legroom is still quite good for even a six-foot rear passenger with a six-foot driver. Headroom is a different matter. While six-foot-five front occupants will find [barely] enough room, rear headroom is extremely limited making the rear seats suitable for a humpty-dumpty with really long legs. Still, rear seat accommodations are rarely a huge selling feature of performance coupes (I’m looking at you Jaguar XK) so this is honestly going to be more of a deal breaker for base CTS coupe buyers than CTS-V shoppers. I would be remiss in noting that while the M3 loses a bit of headroom in coupe form, it’s a far more livable backseat, if you’re into that sort of thing. The other practicality toll suffered by the CTS-V’s acute angular lines is rearward visibility. It’s a good thing a backup camera is standard since the rear window is absolutely no help when backing up.

Readers know that I’m a gadget guy at heart. This is the one area where the CTS in all forms continue to disappoint. The problem is not with audio performance which is excellent on the standard Bose 5.1 surround system with navigation, XM radio and iPod integration, it’s the interface that’s behind the times. The Cadillac infotainment system combines a pop-up touch screen, a myriad of fairly small and nearly identically shaped buttons and aging software to make a system that is illogical at best. I have driven over 50 different cars of all descriptions in the last year and only two have required me to pull out the user’s guide to divine the operation of the Bluetooth speakerphone, the CTS is one and the GMC Sierra is the other. The odd way the system’s menus function requiring the use of both on-screen touch commands and physical buttons to navigate boggled my techy mind. This system is a testament to the fact that Cadillac doesn’t build cars for my grandmother anymore, she’d never figure out how to use it. If you’re six-feet tall or have long legs, you’ll find the system even more vexing as the all-important “back” button is located a long reach away. This cloud does however have one silver lining: the iPod integration. GM’s system downloads playlist and track info from your device rather than streaming it on-the-fly making scrolling playlists, songs and artists a snappy and enjoyable process. If GM could borrow the software from the new Regal ASAP they might be onto something.

556HP. That’s probably all that needs to be said about the GM LSA engine Cadillac shoehorned under the hood of the angular coupe. The 6.2L supercharged behemoth has the unusual distinction of being the only pushrod engine in the performance luxury play-space. Based on the 6.2L Corvette LS9 engine, the LSA (shared with the recently announced Camaro ZL1) uses a slightly smaller supercharger, slightly lower compression ratio (9:1), cast pistons and a single-unit heat exchanger. These changes cause the output to drop from the 638HP and 604lb-ft of the LS9 to 556HP and 551lb-ft. This engine isn’t as refined as the BMW M3’s 4.0L V8. It’s not as pleasing to the ear as Jaguar’s 5.0L supercharged V8. Instead it has a flavor all of its own; it’s a push-rod all-American ball of whoop-ass fitted to a car that without it couldn’t dance with the competition. It makes the CTS-V the Tanya Harding of the luxury performance coupe dance team: not afraid to smack an M3 in the knees when they least expect it.

It’s therefore easy to see why the XLR-V died, 110K for admittedly smooth VVT DOHC power just doesn’t make sense when you can get 556HP from the CTS-V coupe. (Why Cadillac didn’t drop an unadulterated LS9 into the XLR-V is a question that may never get answered.) The immediacy of the LSA is quite simply breathtaking and the power; nothing short of savage. While the M3 screams its way to its stratospheric 8400RPM redline, the CTS-V lets loose only a subtle bellow from 4,000 to its 6200RPM rev-limiter. I had almost hoped the CTS-V would sound as big and bad as it looks but perhaps this is a case of “speak softly and carry a big engine?”  The only downside we noted over 845 miles was an average fuel economy of 14.3MPG proving once again that fun isn’t free.

Michael’s CTS-V Wagon was saddled with winter tires which limited grip, our coupe tester in sunny California however came equipped with wide, grippy Michelin 285-width summer tires out back. Of course with this much power (at essentially any engine speed) grip is still an issue but the rubber put up a valiant fight against wheel spin as we recorded a 4.2 second 0-60 run (no rollout) time after time (while giggling like a schoolboy.) I am certain that with the right rubber and most importantly the right driver, the CTS-V would be capable of a 0-60 run in the mid 3s. The character of the CTS-V is surprising for anyone who has driven a tuned high-power rear-wheel-drive American vehicle: this one is easy to drive.

It’s not just easy to drive in a performance setting; it’s a car you can actually drive daily on imperfect roads without needing an osteopath on retainer. The innovative Brembo two-piece hybrid rotors (combining an aluminum hub pressed onto a steel friction surface rather than bolted) ensure neck-breakingly quick stops time after time with minimal fade, zero drama and supposedly a lower replacement cost when they finally wear. The electronic nanny reigns in the fun at more-or-less the right moments allowing just a touch of tail happy before it spanks the rear brakes to get you back in line. I never thought I would have seen the day there would be a Cadillac you could “easily” steer with your right foot alone.

As our Facebook crowd pointed out during our week testing the CTS-V: by the numbers, this is one heavy porker tipping the scales at 4,209lbs. In reality however the CTS-V only feels heavy under normal driving conditions, which is a good thing in my book. The Cadillac magnetic ride control does an admirable job of soaking up road imperfections while still allowing corner carving that is almost up to M3 standards. One way auto journalists can tell about a newly arrived car’s road abilities is to look at the tires. Bald fronts: crazy torque steer. Bald rears: Chrysler SRT. The CTS-V arrived with fairly worn tires all the way around. Yes the CTS-V burns out with the best of ‘em, but the fun is really to be had throwing the V into corners. Yes, a Cadillac being thrown into a corner.

In my book, the CTS-V competes most directly with the BMW M3 and the Mercedes C63 AMG until the M6 comes back next year. Of course the CTS-V Coupe is a different matter, the C63 has two problems: rear doors. This lack of direct competition (save that M3) means a shopper with an open mind may cross shop the V coupe with a base 911, or the V’s engine donor; the Corvette. How does it stack up? Glad you asked. The CTS-V lacks the M3’s fantastic dual clutch transmission, racing pedigree and let’s face it; snob value. The CTS-V’s GM automatic transmission is a wearisome companion but the 6-speed manual is easy to live with even in heavy traffic. Is the CTS-V better than an M3? That depends on how you define “better.” The V is certainly more distinctive in many ways more fun.

Also from Germany is the Porsche 911. As Jeremy Clarkson always reminds us, the 911’s heart is in the right place but the engine is located at the wrong end. With a starting price of $77,800 it’s also decently more expensive, a fair amount slower (4.7 seconds to 60) but does enjoy significant bragging rights at the country club. Oddly enough the best matchup comes in the form of the Corvette Z06. Sure the Vette has a universally recognizable shape which counts for something, but for $77-grand the interior is dreadful, the handling is not nearly as refined, there are no back seats and higher insurance premiums come standard with the bow-tie.

At the end of the day the Cadillac CTS-V Coupe is exactly what I expected of it: It’s a deeply conflicted car with one hell of an engine. What I had not expected however, is how truly corrupting it is. Perhaps it’s true that a great car is almost always a bad car. While not what we expect from Cadillac, not quite luxury, far from fuel efficient, far from refined, far from universally gorgeous, possessing a brand name that hasn’t been lusted after in decades, it has never the less found a strangely angular place in my heart. If you are looking for the go with some style under 70K, it’s a great buy. And that’s the thing that’s surprising: Cadillac didn’t manage to build a world class luxury car again, what they did build is one hell of a performance buy. Cadillac? Go figure.

Cadillac provided the test vehicle, insurance and a tank of gas.

Not a fan of our Facebook page? Too bad about that. For our Facebook peeps, here are your answers: Daanesh C: I think I’d rather have the wagon, but I’m a sucker for man-wagons. Kevin M: No, the seats are not more comfortable than the base CTS coupe, but the Recaro optional thrones are marginally better. Yes, it is actually fairly easy to put the power down as long as the road is dry and smooth. Compared to the XK-R? Just as much fun but far less comfortable and the crowd that gives the car a once-over is totally different. Make of that what you will. Darren W: I did feel fairly cool when smoking a Camaro SS. Richard L: Worst MPG: 9.2 for the first 120 miles. Patrick C: smokier than a 60 year old hooker. Eric R: spotter, curb feelers, a flag team and a jelly doughnut. Stephen S: I almost can’t believe I am saying this, but yes, it is completely possible to have this 556HP beast as a daily driver. Greg O: No question, CTS-V > Corvette.

Performance statistics as tested:

0-30: 2.0 seconds

0-60: 4.2 seconds

Average economy: 14.3MPG (observed:18.5MPG Highway)

IMG_2444 IMG_2433 IMG_2439 IMG_2427 IMG_2441 cadillac-thumb IMG_2463 IMG_2445 IMG_2432 IMG_2419 IMG_2457 IMG_2446 IMG_2425 IMG_2464 IMG_2422 IMG_2434 Zemanta Related Posts Thumbnail IMG_2431 IMG_2423 IMG_2413 IMG_2449 IMG_2452 IMG_2436 IMG_2430 IMG_2428 IMG_2450 IMG_2448 IMG_2451 IMG_2440 IMG_2454 IMG_2459 IMG_2466 IMG_2413 IMG_2460 IMG_2421 Somewhere West of the Laramie... IMG_2456 IMG_2467 IMG_2429 IMG_2443 IMG_2465 IMG_2435 IMG_2437 IMG_2462

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Review: 2011 Chevrolet Volt Take Two http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/11/review-2011-chevrolet-volt-take-two/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/11/review-2011-chevrolet-volt-take-two/#comments Wed, 10 Nov 2010 19:30:53 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=372196 We’ve been hearing about the Chevrolet Volt for so long that it’s hard to believe that it is finally here. Or almost here. Close enough for a preview drive. And? I never expected the Volt to look like the obviously impractical original concept. Similarly, I was not surprised that the production Volt resembles a prettified […]

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We’ve been hearing about the Chevrolet Volt for so long that it’s hard to believe that it is finally here. Or almost here. Close enough for a preview drive. And?

I never expected the Volt to look like the obviously impractical original concept. Similarly, I was not surprised that the production Volt resembles a prettified Prius, since the Toyota’s styling so successfully communicates its advanced technology to the general population. The most questionable aspect of the exterior design: the ultra-wide glossy black beltline moldings. They’re intended to disguise the small size of the side windows. Why not just make the windows larger? Because this would increase the load on the battery-powered AC.

Does the Volt’s interior seem like that of a $33,500 (post tax credit) car? Well, no. I was more impressed by the materials and workmanship of the much more conventional interior in the related, much less expensive, conventionally powered Cruze. But the Volt’s interior is distinctively styled, effectively communicates the car’s technology, and is significantly nicer than the interior in the Prius. If the Prius interior is good enough for a nearly $27,000 car (with nav)—and sales suggest that it is—then the Volt’s is good enough for a $33,500 car. Don’t care for the glossy white iPodish trim? Then get the dark trim instead. The reconfigurable LCD displays seem to provide a wealth of information, including a grade on your driving style (92 while I was trying to behave). But they provide no clear indication of when braking is hard enough to engage the conventional brakes (reducing efficiency). Also, no report of miles per kW-h while running off electricity. According to the GM exec in the back seat, few people desire such numerical statistics. Though GM will be adding features in the future—the Volt will be a work in progress. And more detailed reports are already available on the Internet, where the Volt regularly uploads data via OnStar. The controls on the center stack are the touch-sensitive type that recently debuted in the 2011 Ford Edge and Lincoln MKX. Whether or not you like them—I do—they’re the future. The oddest bit among the various odd bits of the interior: you must reach into a cave at the base of the center stack to grasp the shifter when it’s in Park.

The rake of the distant windshield is reasonable, obviating the need for windowlettes ahead of the doors. In the current GM fashion, the A-pillars are thick, if not quite to the point where they reduce safety more than they enhance it. Rearward visibility is considerably worse—the optional Park Assist Package is highly recommended. The front seats don’t feel as substantial or as solidly upholstered as those in the Cruze, but they do provide decent lateral support. Unlike in the Cruze, there’s only a single manual height adjustment, so the tilt of the seat cannot be adjusted. The rear seats are the weakest aspect of the car. Low to the floor, overly firm, and cramped, unless you’re a child (or the size of one) you won’t be comfortable. Cargo volume beneath the wiperless hatch is similarly marginal, but will do for typical around town errands. The Prius offers considerably more room for both rear passengers and cargo.

The Volt’s powertrain is more complex than previously imagined. Around town with the battery pack at a viable level of charge, the primary 149-horsepower electric motor-generator powers the car through a fixed gear ratio. At highway speeds this ratio becomes too short, so a second, smaller motor-generator engages the planetary gearset to reduce the ratio. Once the battery pack is depleted (figure 30-50 miles), a 84-horsepower 1.4-liter gas engine automatically starts. Around town it spins the smaller motor-generator to send power to the primary motor-generator via the battery pack. At highway speeds with the battery pack depleted, the second motor-generator again engages the planetary gearset to vary the transmission ratio, but now with the gas engine coupled to it. In this last mode the gas engine enjoys a mechanical connection to the front wheels. While this mechanical connection has purists a little perturbed, it is more efficient when running on gasoline. Personally, I’d prefer a mechanical connection at lower speeds for the same reason, though perhaps the powertrain design, with the engine only driving the planetary gearset through the smaller motor-generator, precludes this.

So, what does it all feel like? Surprisingly normal. I feared that a gas engine decoupled from the drivetrain and running to suit the needs of the battery would sound odd. Would the engine sometimes be racing while sitting at a traffic light? As it turns out, no. If anything, the Volt’s engine sounds less disconnected from the accelerator than that in the typical CVT-equipped conventional car. Transitions among the various modes are not only smoother than those in the Prius or Ford Fusion Hybrid, but are nearly undetectable. In some situations the engine might be a little too undetectable, as it sometimes generates a low frequency rumble right at the edge of perception. A barely perceptible noise can be more annoying than one a bit louder.

GM suggests that, given the high torque output of the primary motor-generator, the Volt feels about as strong at low speeds as a V6-powered sedan. Well, not really. But even with four adults aboard the Volt does feel considerably more energetic than a Prius, and almost as quick as the Ford Fusion Hybrid. Three driving modes are available, including one for mountains and “sport.” I detected little difference between normal and sport, apparently because my foot was too heavy. The modes make the most difference with the pedal less than half way to the floor. Moving the shifter from D to L aggressively engages brake-energy regeneration whenever you lift off the accelerator, nearly eliminating the need to use the brake pedal. I found this too aggressive for typical around town driving, but it would no doubt be welcome on a hilly road.

Only the first five miles of my drive were on battery power—there hadn’t been much time for a recharge since the car’s previous outing. I then babied the car for a while, and achieved about 35 MPG. The second half of my drive—when I was seeking the claimed V6-like low-speed performance—burned a gallon of gas every 28 miles. These figures are about five MPG short of the Fusion Hybrid when subjected to similar (mis)treatment, and about 10 to 15 MPG short of the Prius. GM envisioned the gas engine as backup power which most owners would not need often, so it was optimized for cost not fuel economy. They also talk about improving this aspect of the Volt in future iterations, with just about anything a potential future power source.

The biggest surprise: the Volt handles significantly better than either the Cruze or the Prius. GM has long demonstrated a talent for making cars feel larger and heavier than they actually are. With the Volt they’ve at long last accomplished the (for me at least) more desirable opposite. The steering isn’t exactly chatty, but through it even a fully occupied Volt feels light and agile, with minimal understeer, far exceeding my expectations. In contrast, even the latest Prius feels oddly heavy and pushes wide in turns. While the Volt is still certainly no sports car—even the Ford Fusion Hybrid feels a little sportier—it’ll serve well as a commuter. I sincerely hope the Volt team shares its chassis tuning tricks with the rest of GM.

Body motions are fairly well controlled, though some additional damping would be welcome. The Volt’s ride is a little firmer, busier, and noisier than that in the Cruze, but the Cruze rides better than anything else in its class. The Volt’s does ride better than the Prius and Fusion Hybrid. Among efficiency-maximizing alt-energy cars, this is about as good as it gets.

People have been critical of the Volt’s pricing, but a $7,500 tax credit brings the net MSRP down to $33,500. Nearly everything, including nav and the fancy displays, is standard. Options are limited to heated leather seats, the Park Assist Package, and polished wheels. TrueDelta’s car price comparison tool suggests that the Prius lists for about $4,000 less when both cars are equipped with leather, nav, and 17-inch alloys. A Ford Fusion Hybrid with nav lists for only $1,150 less. Adjust for feature differences (most notably a sunroof, unavailable on the Volt), and the Ford’s advantage increases to about $3,000. Adding leather to both cars adds about $1,000 to both figures—Ford kicks in additional savings when all of the boxes are checked. Three or four grand isn’t pocket change, but it seems reasonable for the Volt’s extended electric-only capability. Likely a better value: GM is offering a lease for $2,500 down and $350 a month.

So, my first drive of the Chevrolet Volt included a few surprises, nearly all of them to the upside. The largest: oddly enough, the handling. The powertrain most impressed with its normalcy. The largest disappointment: the small rear seat. GM has clearly put a great deal of thought and effort into this car, and achieved a much higher level of detailed execution and refinement than I thought possible just a few years ago. My personal commute extends all the way from the second floor of my home to the first. So no Volt for me. But if you daily spend an hour or two commuting, and the thought of expending no gas in the process excites you, then go ahead and get in line. At least initially, there’s likely to be one.

GM provided the vehicle, insurance and very little gasoline for this review

Michael Karesh owns and operates TrueDelta, an online source of automotive pricing and reliability data

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