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The Volt also symbolizes hope for Detroit. The first production models will roll off the line at its Hamtramck factory, offering much needed jobs to a venerable plant in this embattled city. Plant manager Teri Quigley estimates that by 2014, the Volt could help to more than triple the number of employees at Hamtramck, to 3,500, from 1,100 today. (Other models, like the popular Malibu, will be built there too.) Larry Jones, an assembly worker at the plant, reflects this optimism over the din of welding robots. "With the Volt, we've got a car no one else has, and the world is watching us," he says. "We're not going to fall flat on our face."
The first thing to understand about the Volt is that it is like no other car. True, this aerodynamic, compact four-seater sedan does not have the eco-toad look of a Toyota Prius (a potential drawback for buyers who want to display their green cred). But it's what's under the hood that counts. Cars like the Nissan Leaf are pure electrics. Charge them and you can go 100 miles. The Volt is what in industry parlance is called an extended-range vehicle. You can travel the first 40 miles on electricity alone. The Volt's 400-lb. battery, tucked in the car's underbody, takes about 4 hours to charge on a home 220/240-volt outlet the same kind your clothes dryer uses. But you will need to buy a special charger to do this. After the Volt's battery runs down, a four-cylinder gasoline engine kicks in that provides electrical energy to drive the wheels, giving the car a total range of more than 340 miles. GM will guarantee its battery for eight years or 100,000 miles. The wheels of the Toyota Prius, by contrast, are driven mostly by a traditional gas engine aided by an electric motor. Want to go another 300 miles or so in the Volt? Just refill the gas tank. Driven just on its gas engine, the Volt should get a Prius-like 50 m.p.g.
When asked what message GM wanted to convey about the Volt, Anthony DiSalle, the car's director of marketing, said, " Freedom from the gas pump." In a sense, the Volt provides the best of both worlds all-electric power for day-to-day driving and a gas-powered engine to let you take that spur-of-the-moment trip to Reno. When I took the car for a test-drive in June, the handling was smooth, the acceleration was a brisk 0 to 60 in under 9 sec., and the quiet was remarkable in both electric and gas modes.
The Volt's bolt-on gas engine has become something of a debating point in the green wars. Tesla, Nissan, BMW and other proponents of all-electric vehicles argue that 76% of Americans drive less than 40 miles a day. An electric car that gets 100 miles on a charge should do just fine. Why lug around a heavy, expensive gas engine as the Volt does? But in these early days of electrics, Chevy doesn't want to give consumers a reason not to buy a Volt.
One drawback of all electric cars, including the Volt and Leaf, is that the range will vary dramatically depending on driving conditions. Nissan says the Leaf has a 100-mile range, but that's on cool, sunny days and on flat roads. In fact, the Japanese carmaker recently announced that the Leaf's range could vary from 47 to 138 miles. In other words, drive the Leaf on a hot day in heavy, stop-and-go traffic and its range drops to 47 miles, says Nissan.