2013 Chevrolet Volt: Charging into the future.
Price: $42,525 (includes $1,395 for leather trim package; $895 for Chevrolet MyLink radio with navigation, $595 for polished aluminum wheels and $495 for Bose premium speakers). A $7,500 federal tax credit helps defray this cost a bit.
Marketer's pitch: "Electric when you want it; gas when you need it."
Conventional wisdom: It's the Al Gore of cars -- people learn to love it, or hate it with a passion that burns brighter than a thousand coal-fired electricity generating plants.
Reality: A lot like Al Gore, with its heart in the right place but a few compromises, annoyances and drawbacks, and not much personality.
Running the Volt: The Volt is operated by an electric motor that powers the wheels in all situations. When the vehicle is recharged by a wall socket, the batteries store enough power to operate the vehicle for a promised 38 miles (depending on driving conditions; that's what I averaged before the engine kicked in). When that supply is depleted, the 1.4-liter, four-cylinder gasoline engine operates only as a generator for the electric motor.
Recharging: Frankly, this can be a bit of pain. The cord that GM ships with the vehicle is about 10 feet long, and the charging unit has to be hung near the wall outlet and then run to the car. A slightly longer cord would be much more convenient.
A 110-volt cord comes standard, and it makes for slow recharges (10 hours is advertised, I was looking at 21 hours at one point, according to the vehicle). A 220-volt would quicken the charging speed to four hours, but most garages don't have 220-volt outlets.
(The Volt did inexplicably not charge on one occasion for me. The dashboard does tell you if it's charging, so I guess I didn't check it. We'll call that operator error).
Still, this proves it's not a car for everyone.
On the road: The Volt drives like any midsize GM car. Its handling is crisp but not exciting.
In a hurry: Getting the car up to highway speed from a ramp is no problem. Too much rushing will drain the batteries more quickly, of course, but the power is there when you need it.
Switching sources: When the battery charge does drop to 0, the engine startup is as seamless as one could hope for.
The price of aerodynamics: Like the Prius, the Volt suffers from being a split-rear window vehicle -- not side-by-side like old Volkswagens, but one piece on top and another on bottom. This makes rearward visibility a real issue.
The Volt doesn't offer a rear wiper as an option -- I can see this being a real issue when the snow is flying in the Pittsburgh region and salt from the roads kicks up on the back of the car. Spring for the backup camera.
Still, the case could be made that this is not simply function following form, but form holding down function and smacking it repeatedly with a big stick.
Everyday living: The first couple times that I had the Volt I liked the futuristic stereo and heater controls, with the special touch-but-not-touchscreen buttons built into the panel. But over time it just seems overly complex.
Fuel economy: I used a gallon of gas during a week I drove 150 miles, only because of the charge malfunction that one time. Its 38-mile range is the longest of all plug-in hybrids available.
How it's built: Consumer Reports gives it an above average predicted reliability. And an eight-year/100,000 mile warranty on Voltec components should keep nerves from fraying.
In the end: Solar panels + plug-in car = No more fossil fuel burning. I hope someday soon both these technologies can be had by the masses. And the car itself is not too bad either.
Scott Sturgis, a freelance auto writer, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.