Behind the wheel of the new Volt

Somebody had the idea to take a car and an iPod and put them in a blender, and this futuristic thing I drove on Wednesday was what came out of it. In other words I went up to Thielen Motors in Park Rapids on to test drive the 2012 Chevrolet Volt,...

Volt battery
Photo by Rachelle Klemme The car has a battery running down the middle, which the car runs on until depleting its battery mileage and switching to conventional gas mode.

Somebody had the idea to take a car and an iPod and put them in a blender, and this futuristic thing I drove on Wednesday was what came out of it.

In other words I went up to Thielen Motors in Park Rapids on to test drive the 2012 Chevrolet Volt, an extended-range electric car with a name that sounds like a Quidditch broom for Harry Potter, or an 80s cartoon giant robot that defends the universe.

First, getting in the car in the parking lot, there weren't the usual analog speedometer and other gauges in front of the steering wheel - just a digital screen with a big number showing my speed (zero in the parking lot), other stats like the number of miles left to go on the lithium-ion battery power and a pretty gradient background.

And there was another digital screen above the radio and temperature controls, showing an animation of the car's battery and wheels.

Is this just normal for new cars? Or just this specific kind of car with competitors like the Toyota Prius and the Nissan Leaf? I felt so embarrassingly luddite.


Driving out, the car is programmed to detect the outside temperature. The screen warned me that roads might be icy because the temperature is less than 32 degrees like it is for so much of the year in Minnesota.

It was a smooth ride through the Minnesota evergreen woods, but there was something different about the whole feel of the car that I couldn't put my finger on. It wasn't just that the rear windshield was a bit dusty after 20 or 30 other test drives outside or that the speedometer showed exactly how much I was slowing down at the stoplight intersection.

Then the sales consultant Brent Trauger mentioned that, among other advantages of running on battery power, the lack of obnoxious engine noise made it nice and quiet like this ...

Oh yes, yes, of course! I totally noticed that! Like right away! So obviously quiet that it wasn't obvious at all. Just a smooth airy atmosphere that dies down as you decelerate.

That was why it felt weird. When driving I'm used to responding to my car's audible cues and occasional whining and growling.

Now I was more assured. The Chevy Volt is not just giving me the tense, passive aggressive silent treatment. The Chevy Volt is genuinely laid back and unassuming. Like a perfect gentleman or a proper lady.

At the same time - this Volt is not to be messed with. Something that could silently drive and creep up on you in the Minnesota woods.

I slowed down for a couple of dogs on the side of a country road and they didn't even bother chasing me. That's apparently how sneaky this car is.


Unlike some earlier electric cars, which would have to be stopped for recharging every 30 miles or so and worked for maybe grocery shopping and commuting but were nearly useless for real road trips, the Chevy Volt switches to a conventional gas engine when the zero emission battery mileage has run out. While it's running on gas, the battery is charged enough to keep the car working until the driver has a chance to plug it in and fully recharge it.

Trauger said the Chevrolet Volt does not give "range anxiety," the feeling that you get with when you know you have just a few more miles before needing to stop and recharge.

"You can drive across the country with this car if you have to," Trauger said.

The fuel economy of the regular gasoline engine, in EPA and DOT statistics, 37 miles per gallon.

The fuel economy and greenhouse gas rating is 10 (the best) and the smog rating is six (slightly better than average rating).

$39,995 is the base price of the new car before the $7,500 federal tax rebate.

Trauger said that if one uses the Chevrolet Volt for just basic commuting and short distance driving, one can go a very long time without ever filling up at the gas station.

He said that there are over 6,000 Volts on the road right now in the United States. The 2011 Volt was open to select markets, but the 2012 Volt was made available to all dealers. Thielen Motors has had them since September.


What about reports of battery problems for the Volt?

Trauger said they are working on getting that fixed. The cars are safe to drive, but in case of a crash, the battery pack has to be taken out and drained or else there is a risk of it catching on fire.

Back in the parking lot I asked about the audio system, since it would be kind of strange not to listen to music inside a car that totally feels like a giant iPod.

Besides the AM and FM radio and CD player, there's a built in XM satellite radio trial subscription. And for MP3 players, there's a USB port. The last time I saw a ride with a built in USB port was when I went to see the movie "Avatar."

The National Automotive History Collection has already named the Chevy Volt as the 2011 No. 1 Collectible Car of the Future.

Now if only this fun car was one of those flying creatures from "Avatar," I would just have to plug something into the USB port and it would obediently follow me out of the lot.

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