2011 Chevrolet Volt

LOS ANGELES  — Rube Goldberg would have loved the Chevy Volt. Two electric motors, a gasoline engine that powers a generator that powers the electric motors via a giant lithium ion battery, 32 computer modules, all fed by a fist full of wires that somehow plug into everything that turns the wheels and makes it go.

And it goes pretty darn good.

When you approach the Volt you have to take a leap of faith that the scientists and engineers at Chevrolet really know what they’re doing. Unless you’re a disguised Cray computer your head will spin with input that is just not in totality comprehensible.

First the car — it drives really nice, properly weighted, comfortable, easy to handle going up a mountain, down a mountain, in twists and turns and out on the highways. It’s not a barn burner but its overall performance is pleasing. It is a car that would be easy to own.

Then there’s the technology — in lay terms, huh? So Chevrolet calls this a plug-in extended range vehicle. They really don’t like to call it a hybrid, but…it’s complicated.

What you do get are two electric motors, one 55kWh and the other 16kWh; a gasoline engine that helps to charge the generator that charges the lithium ion battery that power the electric motors. You also have regenerative braking that helps to recharge the battery and you can plug it into a 120 or 240-volt outlet or charging station to fill the battery. All that charging will get you about 40 miles at the most.

Are you still with us? So after driving your 40ish miles the battery has approximately 20-percent reserve and that’s when the gasoline engine kicks in to supply the generator that will keep the battery at that reserve level and it keeps you going for about 310 more miles, or until you burn all the gas and fully deplete the battery; hence the extended range moniker.

Under these conditions the gasoline engine does not drive the wheels only the electric motors do so. But (there is always a but) under certain conditions of high speed and high torque the gasoline engine and the 55kWh motor will combine to drive the wheels — in short bursts.

In reality, who cares? As noted the car goes pretty well and is relatively efficient and it seems like a nice piece of science and engineering that gets you there. However (there’s always a however) all this science and engineering doesn’t come cheap.

Our buddy John O’Dell, a senior editor at Edmunds.com who writes about “green” vehicles says, “[the Volt is] just an incredibly expensive vehicle and that takes it off the realm of becoming a mainstream vehicle.” Chevrolet obviously disagrees with the Green Car Advisor editor in that they are talking about producing over 100,000 Volts in 2012. Pricing before incentives ranges between $42,000 and $44,000.

The payback for owning a Volt looks mostly altruistic, considering the cost of the vehicle, the cost of plugging in to recharge and the cost of gasoline. It’s a conundrum to figure out, and isn’t that what Rube Goldberg loved!

— Ted Biederman