I finished my drink, picked up my bag and wandered out into a very crisp autumnal morning. Outside, in the parking bay, was my car. I went over to the driver's side, gripped the industrial electrical connector, pulled the release and detached it from the socket in the car's front wing. After clipping the connector back into its housing on the wall-mounted charging point, I climbed in behind the wheel and pushed the blue illuminated starting button.
Two LCD screens burst into animated life. Among the multiple displays and graphics was a rendering of a battery. Glowing green, the display told me I had 41 miles of range from the car's battery pack – easily enough for this morning's 20-mile run.
I pulled the car's shift lever into D and, with nothing more than a brief, high-pitched whine from the electric motor, headed almost silently toward the road.
This scenario might sound like a futuristic fantasy, but it is actually an exact description of my first experience of the production-ready Chevrolet Volt. And, as you read this, it is now scientific fact for anyone who has $41,000 (less whatever rebates may be available from Federal and state agencies) and the burning desire to be on the cutting edge of eco-friendly automotive technology.
The argument for battery-powered cars is probably strongest in America, where strict air pollution laws live alongside regular commuting runs, a unique sensitivity to fuel prices and extensive parking provisions that could easily accommodate charging points.
Chevrolet is not only the first maker to bring a serious series-production battery-powered car to the market, but it has also, arguably, come up with the most technically intriguing solution. Chevrolet's parent, General Motors, insists that the Volt is not a hybrid but an extended-range electric vehicle, making it the first production battery-powered car that can promise not to leave the driver stranded at the side of the road because the batteries have run flat.
That's because it does not rely on its 5.5ft.-long, 434lb, 16kWh battery pack as its sole motivator. Packaged under the hood is a 64hp 1.4-liter gasoline engine, which (via a generator) can power the Volt's electric motors directly, once the battery pack has exhausted its usable charge.
But in the upcoming battle of the battery cars, GM will argue that the Volt's unique layout is best placed to offer the potential of both a purely battery-powered commute during the week and pretty frugal, mostly gas-powered, longer journeys on the weekend.
The Volt was first seen as a concept car at the Detroit Auto Show in January 2007. By the summer, it had been given the green light by GM. Despite differing radically from anything else in the GM portfolio, the Volt went from drawing board to showroom in a claimed 29 months.
In truth, it's a miracle that the Volt has made it into reality. As the engineers were being assembled in autumn 2007 for the project, the world's booming stock markets quietly peaked before tipping down into a catastrophic nosedive that triggered the credit crunch and, subsequently, the bankruptcy of GM itself. Amazingly, despite this, the funds for the Volt project – said to be $700 million – were never interrupted.
The car is based on GM's new Delta platform, which also underpins the latest Chevrolet Cruze. It uses the same basic MacPherson strut front suspension and U-section torsion beam rear axle (though without the Cruze's clever Watts link). The Volt also gets unique, lightweight wheels and specific Goodyear low-friction tires.
The big, T-shaped battery pack is mounted along the center of the car's floor pan, with the top of the T sitting crossways under the rear seats. The battery has its own heating and cooling systems to keep it in its optimum temperature range. GM engineers have also managed to squeeze in a 7.3-gallon fuel tank under the floor.
The drivetrain is packaged, sideways, under the hood. The modest 64hp engine (which only operates between 2200rpm and 4400rpm) is attached to a rather complex electro-mechanical drive module, which takes up the space of a conventional gearbox.
This drive module is made up of an electric motor, an electric motor/generator and a planetary gearset (very similar in principle to the classic Sturmey Archer bicycle hub gears). It offers just two gear ratios. The transfer of power to the front wheels from the various combinations of electric motors and engine is via conventional fixed gears, which are connected to the driveshafts.
From low speed to 60mph, the Volt is powered by a single electric motor. At higher speed, both electric motors are running (delivering a total of 147hp and 273lb-ft). Pushing the Volt along at high speed can cause the engine to drive the wheels directly as well. This is because using the two electric motors together is only 70 percent efficient. Making a direct mechanical connection to the engine improves efficiency to 95 percent.
Arguably, this makes the Volt a conventional hybrid because the engine has a direct connection to the wheels. But then again, it operates in this manner at high speeds only, when the battery has been discharged.
While the Volt's futuristic exterior is neatly executed, it's the interior ambiance that really impresses. The cabin – a strict four-seater because the battery intrudes in the shape of a large center tunnel – is wonderfully light and airy, with a fine view forward through the front doors and windshield, as well as rearward, over the driver's shoulder. The load bay is big, too, and completely flat with the individual rear seats folded down.
The dashboard layout successfully embraces the Volt's clean-sheet running gear and uses two LCD screens that deliver myriad graphic information. Perhaps most useful are the live representations of your driving style and use of the climate control system and their subsequent effect on fuel consumption. The console uses a flat, touch-sensitive surface rather than individual buttons.
There's virtually no noise when you press the illuminated start button and you only have to pull the (disappointingly awkward and clunky) shift lever into D mode to make a silent getaway.
The smooth torque of the electric motors does a surprisingly good job of disguising the Volt's 3,781lb curb weight. However, like the Toyota Prius, the Chevrolet seems to encourage the driver to flow along gently, rather than to push on. This is probably because of the combination of the steady swell of torque, a lack of gear changing, the silence of the drivetrain and the dashboard graphic counting down the distance to discharge.
Even under reasonable acceleration on the freeway, the Volt's battery-driven drivetrain mode remains relaxed and refined. There's none of the audible strain of the racing engine and CVT gearbox that can blight the Prius.
When the battery is dead, the Volt can pull away on the battery's buffer store and then the engine cuts in quietly at around 20mph to power up the motor/generator. Only under hard acceleration above, say, 50mph is the engine properly audible. It's not noisy, but it's not the most engaging of sounds, either.
On the arrow-straight roads of rural Michigan, where we drove the car, it was hard to establish whether the Volt has a spark of enthusiasm for being driven briskly, but what we did experience didn't bode well. The steering suffers from nearly a quarter of a turn of light and vague response (likely to be partly tire related). On the hideously broken concrete roads of Michigan, the Volt also suffered from very intrusive bump-thump, although the ride was actually pretty good.
Otherwise, it has a very quiet cabin, making conversation between the front and rear easy, and left me feeling quite refreshed after a few hours at the wheel. Overall, the Volt is easy, fluid and breezy, as befits a car tuned entirely for frugality.
Although the Volt has crawled from the wreckage of GM as an extremely innovative and complete machine, there are big question marks over this type of car. It is very expensive for what amounts to a car that can travel pollution-free for around 40 miles using (admittedly inexpensive) domestic electricity. Many regular commuters will probably never use the gasoline engine in anger, but in gas/generator mode on the freeway the Volt will probably return only around 40 to 45mpg.
A comparably sized diesel-powered sedan will be much cheaper to buy, better to drive and probably more economical. Farther down the road, the refining of conventional technology, such as the forthcoming 80mpg Mazda 2, shows that cars like the Volt will play only a small role in the greening of the mainstream car.
But anyone enthusiastic about the car industry should rejoice that the Volt exists. It is an extremely clever and remarkably well thought out machine – and a credit to a company that managed to develop it while undergoing a bankruptcy that reverberated around the world.