With most cars, idling at the arrival curb of a major metropolitan airport results in an instantaneous visit from the parking police: Whistles blown, arms akimbo, ticket pads drawn.
But the new 2011 Chevy Volt isn't most cars. Picking up the vehicle at Oakland International Airport, dozens of strangers slowed their wheeled luggage to get a better look at a car that's received as much attention as an A-list celebrity.
And those DayGlo-vested police who normally strike fear in idling drivers' hearts? They were, for the first time I've ever experienced, friendly and inquisitive — and seemingly ready to ditch their day jobs to hop in for the ride to L.A.
Having driven the car for a day, I wouldn't have blamed them.
With its Volt, General Motors Co. zaps popular preconceptions that it's incapable of making a progressive, outside-the-box vehicle. The exterior is understated and attractive, and the interior is sleekly high-tech without being overkill. Accessible in both its design and operation, there's a normalcy to the Volt that belies what's under the hood.
Going into production next month, the Volt will be the world's first mass-produced plug-in electric with a range-extending gasoline engine. Chevy calls it an extended-range electric, although the automaker, which only recently cleared the patent on the Volt's drivetrain, explained last week that it's actually a hybrid that uses a gas engine coupled with two electric motors.
Nomenclature aside, the Volt is one of the most highly anticipated cars of the year. Capable of traveling 25 to 50 miles on electric power with its 16-kilowatt lithium-ion battery pack and 111-kilowatt electric drive unit, the Volt can go an additional 310 miles with a 1.4-liter internal combustion engine that juices its electric generator and drive motors.
Designed as an all-electric commuter that can also go the distance, the Volt achieves its best fuel economy, lowest emissions and lowest cost of operation when running in pure electric mode. According to GM, running an electric car costs 2 cents a mile to operate versus 10 cents for gas.
The Volt turns on with the press of a button, and the only indicators that it's running are a computer-generated whooshing sound and the rush of green-and-blue graphics that assemble themselves into a liquid-crystal display beyond the steering wheel. The motor is silent.
On takeoff, my display indicated that I had 18 miles of electric battery power (since the man from GM who so kindly came with the car had used up the rest on his drive from San Francisco). I could travel an additional 244 miles with the premium gas in the tank. High-octane is required.
A green sphere floated in a column on the right-hand side of the LCD screen, floating up and turning yellow if I accelerated aggressively, and floating down and turning yellow if I did the same with braking. The goal is to keep the green globe balanced in the center, indicating the driver is handling the car most fuel-efficiently.
Pulling away from the curb, I saw the globe bounce upward before balancing itself, Zen-like. Aggressive deceleration is less of a concern because the Volt is outfitted with regenerative braking that captures the kinetic energy of the braking force and helps recharge the batteries. Putting the direct-drive transmission in "low" when coasting or traveling downhill increases braking resistance and recharges the batteries even more expeditiously.
After traveling 11 miles, my dash indicated I had seven miles of range left in pure electric mode. I was impressed by the Volt's ability to predict because exactly seven miles later, when the car had about 30% of its battery life left to spare, the car did, exactly as it was designed, switch over to gas mode. Instead of the batteries propelling its drive motor, it was the car's 1.4-liter engine propelling a 54-kilowatt generator motor propelling the drive motor.
The only discernible difference to me in switching over to gas-powered electricity as a driver was an extremely low-level purr from the generator.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is still wrestling with how to accurately quantify the emissions of electric vehicles, and it hasn't yet released official mpg figures for the Volt. Checking the car's second LCD screen in the center console after traveling 72.5 miles —40.8 in electric mode and 31.7 with gas — my mpg equivalent was an impressive 90.3, despite my test of the Volt's top speed. How clean those miles are in electric mode depends on the electricity source.