Some have called it the car that will save General Motors: the Chevy Volt, a plug-in electric sedan set to launch in three test markets (in California, Michigan, and the Washington, D.C., area) by the end of 2010.
Chevy set up a closed course in a shopping mall parking lot outside Austin for the Volt, and it invited about 75 people to give it a test-drive, from members of the press to "social influencers" with big Twitter followings to local members of the Austin Electric Vehicle Association.
This individual Volt, here driven by CNET's Caroline McCarthy, is one of about 80 Volts that have been hand-built as part of the car's development process. Factory production of test vehicles will begin this spring.
Chevy says the Volt is designed to be "very aerodynamic," from the closed grill in the front to the shape of the side mirrors. GM representatives have not disclosed the car's mileage, because, in part, that the miles-per-gallon model does not easily translate to an electric car.
The Volt features a less fuel-efficient but speedier "sport" mode, making it quite a bit zippier than the average hybrid or electric car. It does, however, max out at about 100 mph.
Because it's an electric car, the Volt is extremely quiet and raises subsequent safety concerns: pedestrians, particularly the visually impaired, might not be able to hear it coming. As a result, the Volt has a "pedestrian alert" that can be set off by tugging on a control next to the steering wheel.
When asked about the nifty patterns printed on the inside of the Volt's doors, a Chevy representative responded that it's just supposed to be nifty and kind of different from what you'd usually see on the door of a car.
In the trunk of the Chevy Volt is the car's charger cord, which plugs into a socket on the car on one side and an outlet on the other.
You can plug it into any three-pronged household outlet, and it'll take about 8 or 9 hours to charge, or about 3 hours at a specially built 240-volt charging station. GM is working with some third-party charging-station companies as well.
A GM representative showed off Chevrolet Connect, a test iPhone app developed by OnStar specifically for the Volt. It's still in development, but it can currently be used to lock and unlock the car, receive a notification when it's been charged, and access some remote controls, like turning on the car's heating system before you leave your house on a cold morning.
Chevrolet Connect will likely be debuting on iPhone, Android, and BlackBerry Storm platforms, along with the Volt's launch, and then eventually for other GM cars.
There are 12,000 SXSWi attendees, so they can't all get behind the wheel of the Volt. But since Chevy wants to reach this target market, it has set up branded "recharge" stations around the Austin Convention Center for a different kind of electric product: cell phones and laptops.