Deja Volt: Test driving Chevy's new electric vehicle*

I took a spin down the Katy Freeway this morning in Chevy’s new electric vehicle, the Volt, and it was a bit of deja vu.

Deja vu in that as a consumer  I’ve test driven a number of cars  on the same stretch of Interstate 10 between 610 and Beltway 8, and it felt no different — just that the Volt was a bit nicer than any of the ones I’ve tried before.

And deja vu in that I felt like I was driving my mom’s car because it was clean, fast, the A/C worked great and I probably couldn’t afford it.

In other word, the Volt doesn’t really feel that different from other new American cars — and that’s kind of Chevy’s point.

“It isn’t asking you to change your lifestyle,” said Craig Eppling, the regional communications manager for General Motors, who took me on the test drive today.

My lifestyle doesn’t allow me to pay $41,000 for a compact car ($32,500 assuming full federal tax credit). The comparable all-gasoline powered vehicle Chevy makes is the Cruze, which starts at around $16,275.

Cost-prohibitions aside, my observations from the drive are after the jump.

The Volt handled great, had smooth acceleration and good braking once I got used to the pulsing from the brakes as they recharge the battery.

I cruised comfortably at 70 mph on the Katy with the A/C blasting (a test I couldn’t duplicate during a so-called test drive of the Nissan LEAF earlier this year) and was able to easily pass cars at will. It felt a lot more powerful than the Toyota Prius.

It turned smoothly and tightly in a parking lot and as I did a u-turn on a side street.

The engine doesn’t kick on until the battery is just about depleted,* so I didn’t hear any engine noise. At 70 the highway noise was nominal.

*(A reader enlightened me on a finer point: the gasoline engine does indeed drive the wheels when the battery runs down. I must have misunderstood what the Chevy folks told me)

The Volt has the necessary connections for kid car seats (kind of important to me), although the back seat would be a little tight for reaching in to pluck a kid out.

The trunk space looked good for a normal baby stroller, a big load of groceries and a couple of coolers and a tent for car camping. But you’d be hard pressed to fit a bike back there.

The center console for the climate controls and radio were a somewhat hard to navigate, and the front display showing if I was in reverse, neutral or drive was a bit small, but I got the sense it wasn’t so different from other Chevys.

In answer to a reader question, the Volt has to meet the same forward-, rear- and side-crash standards as other compacts, so if I crashed it would be the same as any similar-size car.

I’ll admit to feeling a slight twinge of anxiety when I looked at the battery gauge and it said I had 21miles to go. But then I realized I had another 114 miles of range including the recharging capacity of the gasoline engine. The Chevy guys actually drove a Volt all the way from San Antonio to Houston this weekend non-stop, so the range issue is more imagined than real.

What about the actual miles per gallon? The EPA has not yet determined how that will be measured. In theory, if you’re like most Americans and your round-trip commute is less than 35 miles, the gasoline engine would rarely kick on.

The cars don’t come standard with a home recharging system (which cost about $500, not including installation costs), but the first 4,000 or so customers will get them for free.

Production of the Volt starts next month in Michigan, with 10,000 cars planned for the first year (compared to around 200,000 for the first year of the Cruze). A plant to make the batteries in the U.S. also is under construction, but the first round of batteries will be imported. Texas is one of seven states that will get the first cars, with Austin being the first roll-out city.

I know there’s much more to discuss when it comes to the Volt and other electric vehicles, such as ‘What happens to the batteries when the 8-year/100,000 mile warranty runs out’ and ‘Is this really going to make a dent in oil demand?’ We’ll return to those at another time.

So, would I get a Volt? Probably not due to price. But it would easily meet my driving needs as my commute is about 25 miles round trip, it would fit both kids and has room for overnight trips. But there’s zero room for the in-laws when they come to town as the back seat doesn’t even have space for a tiny person to sit.

My colleague Loren Steffyis taking a test drive, too, so he may have more pointed thoughts on the Volt. And the Chron’s real car reviewer, Tim Spell, is driving the Volt to New Orleans in the next day or so.