2011 Chevrolet Volt: Take Three
Truth seeking is difficult considering the controversy, misinformation and flat-out lies surrounding the Chevrolet Volt. But this is a product with set attributes, some are better or worse than our collective expectations. The performance reminds me of live music: everyone has an opinion as to how much it rocked. And the Chevrolet Volt is Jimi Hendrix on wheels: an American likely to influence popular culture for decades after leaving the limelight. But more importantly, like the influences of jazz and blues in Jimi’s work, the Volt combines Detroit’s future with memorable elements of the past. It’s true.
Which is painfully obvious in the styling: a mishmash of boring econocar elements with styling cues from the lovely cab-backward design of the Volt concept. GM Design worked hard to fit the original’s unique bits on the Delta II platform, even the “black eye” window surrounds are crafted nicely enough to look more like a tu-tone paint job, not a cop-out from the concept’s wild window treatment. That said, it’s another tall and boxy sedan with a big nose, mediocre coefficient of drag and an afterthought-looking hatchback that does little to improve visibility. Black is certainly the best color.
Not necessarily true inside: the Volt embraces its passenger sedan platform from within, adding CB2-worthy flair to keep the Corolla references at bay. GM’s corporate center stack gets an extreme iPod makeover with Volvo’s signature negative space just for fun. The buttonage is less intuitive than your average cell phone, but it’s a short learning curve. Speaking of, the dual-cove dash comes with hard, bright plastic accents that follow around the door’s armrests in a distinctly elbow-averse manner. No matter, the dashtop cubby, (optional) lime green trim and stitched armrests make excellent fodder for Hybrid-owner smugness.
Seat comfort is almost plush, with Corvette-like leather wrapping and matching lime green contrast. Speaking of, there are squidgy plastics where needed and (much to the Chevy Vega’s dismay) the best trimmed glove box in GM’s portfolio. While rear seat legroom isn’t plentiful, there’s space for two adults between the low-slung console. Perhaps the Volt’s derivative platform is to blame again, taller rear passengers benefit from a warning before closing the hatchback: crushed hats and squashed hair Über Alles.
Driving requires no such precautions. Aside from the “green ball in a tube” efficiency gauge a la economy meter on BMWs, a drive around downtown Houston was an afternoon in the Land of the Lotus Eaters. The ride is controlled, close to silent, and luxury car plush with minimal suspension crashing on bad bumps. Credit the almost 3800lb curb weight and cushy suspension for that.
Natural-feeling torque management (yes, really) reduces the Volt’s gutsy powertrain to that of a normal vehicle. Steering is lifeless on-center, but turns to the slow and confident responses expected from an American sedan with a few degrees of input. The brakes are a surprise: light and linear with no grabbing sensations from the battery regeneration hardware. I couldn’t push the Volt hard, but it’s clear that this ride subscribes to the straight line school of thought.
This is more relevant on America’s stock in trade: the Interstate. Freeway sweepers highlight the smooth and confident steering/braking/handling of many a US-spec sedan. And the Volt is no exception. Merging in traffic is accomplished with diesel-like effort with only a hushed “whir” from the engine compartment. It was an absolutely thrilling, if subtle, change to my commute. And that was the wakeup call: the Volt’s unique-but-expected driving demeanor is everything America loves from Detroit’s cushy ride, torque-rich V8 past with everything we expect from our energy independent future. Clarkson’s grinding his xenophobic axe, but Hendrix fans appreciate the duality.
Which instills a (hopeless?) optimism that things can only get better from here, even if both Volts I tested showed MPG figures in the high 30’s. Which was what I earned via hypermiling a $14,000 Cobalt XFE that was far more entertaining in a corner. So I’m not here to complain about/justify the Volt’s numbers, either on a MPG or kWh basis. It’s a moot point since the manufacturing justifications, limited production, loyal fan base and limitless potential in the second generation are in the Volt’s favor.
And I never drove long enough to kick-on the underhood ICE, as Chevy recharged their Volt fleet whenever possible, using hotels that willingly pay extra for Texas’ Green-sourced power. Okay, I made that last part up.
Should you fork over $35-ish grand (incentivized) for a Volt? Being on the bleeding edge of technology is a thrill for many. And this is the 1953 Corvette for a new generation, with its antiquated kingpin suspension and stop-gap straight six motor intact. And that implies a promise: the Chevy Volt has limited production with unlimited appeal. Like any other Detroit Icons from yesteryear, it is an instant classic that must be experienced to fully appreciate.
(I attended the Chevy Volt tour as a registered guest, not a media participant. It was held in Houston’s version of Central Park, building awareness with Texans who avoid the long commutes of a suburban dweller. Thanks to my brother giving hot laps in his Corvette ZR1 for the Volt staffers, TTAC got a closer look. Shockingly, a Chevy Volt arrived at our door the next evening to experience on roads that encompass my normal commute, including highways, light traffic and piss-poor pavement in less-than-desirable neighborhoods.)
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