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A new challenger approaches
The Chevrolet Volt arrives later this year to challenge the Toyota Prius for green car superiority. However, GM doesn't like to call the Volt a hybrid, choosing to classify it as an extended range electric vehicle (EREV).
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Electric drive train
The Volt's front wheels are driven by an electric motor with a peak output of 120 kW that draws its power from a lithium ion battery pack that runs the length of the vehicle.
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When the Volt's batteries reach the end of their estimated 40-mile range, a 1.4-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine fires up. However, this range-extender engine merely operates as a generator, supplying charge for the Li ion battery pack rather than directly motivating the wheels like a hybrid vehicle.
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Two refueling caps
Because the Volt is designed to be plugged in for charging, it requires two fueling inputs. The first is an electrical connection at the front of the vehicle that recharges the battery pack in as little as 4 hours when connected to a 240V power source. The second fuel input is a conventional gasoline input for the range extender located at the rear of the vehicle on the opposite side. Hopefully, users won't get the two confused.
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GM has designed the Volt in a five-door liftback configuration, a setup that's both aerodynamics-friendly and quite flexible for hauling with its fold-flat rear seats.
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This Volt's center stack featured glossy white plastic with capacitive buttons and is capped by color touch-panel display. GM's representatives tell us that users will be able to spec a darker, more understated color if the white is too odd-looking.
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Many of the preproduction center stack's buttons were labeled with stickers. However, final-production models will have a much nicer finish, we're assured.
Meanwhile, at the base of the center stack is the Volt's hefty shifter.
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Climate-control settings can be accessed through the Volt's touch panel. GM's EREV features a few climate-control settings presets that alter the way the system functions, such as an ECO mode that reduces overall power consumption.
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Vehicle information screen
Much like the Toyota Prius, the Volt also features a power information readout that informs the driver of the status of the vehicle's drive train. Is the system regenerating from the brakes? Is the range extender active? Am I using too much juice with a lead foot? Here's were to find the answers.
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Like nearly all GM vehicles these days, the Volt will be available with XM satellite radio. Also available on the Volt are Bluetooth wireless for hands-free calling and an array of digital audio inputs (USB, iPod, A2DP Bluetooth).
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Just ahead of the Volt's steering wheel is its color LCD instrument panel.
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It's no SmartGauge
Compared to Ford's SmartGauge setup on its Fusion Hybrid, the Volt's instrument panel seems cluttered and unorganized. It's more of a collection of widgets than a unified information hub. Hopefully, GM be able to polish the interface by the time the Volt launches later this year.
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Safety first with pre-production
Don't expect to find one of these widgets in the Volt that hits showroom floors. Our preproduction model was equipped with this safety kill-switch that shuts everything down in the event of an emergency. Fortunately for us, it doesn't look like it gets much use.
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With all systems go, we took the Volt on a series of laps around a parking lot test course laid out by GM in downtown San Francisco. The vehicle is, as expected, quite quiet. Well under the vehicle EV range of 40 miles, we glided around the course with nary a peep from the gasoline range extender.
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Acceleration was good in the normal drive mode, but the Volt will feature a few extra drive programs such as a Sport mode that supplies more grunt at the expense of a bit of range and a Mountain mode that taps the range extender earlier than usual to supply extra energy for climbing hills and mountains without exhausting the battery.
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With a low center of mass (thanks to the battery pack tucked into its center tunnel), the Volt should have a slight handling advantage over similarly sized vehicles. However, it's no autocross star. Even at the low speed of GM's test course, the most remarkable thing about the Volt's handling is how unremarkable it is. Then again, that may not be such a bad thing for a mass-market vehicle.