Chevrolet seems to be persnickety about insisting that the Volt is not a hybrid car, but an electric vehicle that just happens to generate some of that electricity with an onboard gasoline-powered engine. That's set off a months-long debate over the semantics of alternative-fuel vehicles — and in the past few days, some have even charged that General Motors has been "lying" about the car's status as a "true electric vehicle."
The charge stems from the recent revelation that, at high speeds, the Volt's 1.4-liter internal combustion engine doesn't just generate electricity, but contributes directly to driving the wheels through a set of planetary gears. That revelation ticked off automotive writers who had been told repeatedly that the gas-powered engine was connected to the car's Voltec drive system only indirectly. The New York Times' Wheels blog referred to the "controversy" in today's posting about the Volt's coming-out party, and The Car Connection's Nelson Ireson criticized the critics as interested only in "self-serving, tabloid-worthy headlines."
To an outsider like myself, this doesn't seem like much of a controversy to agonize over. Although I didn't realize it at the time, Volt spokesman Rob Peterson was referring to this back-and-forth last week when he told me that "in some instances, we haven't been able to go as deep as we would have liked" into the Volt's inner workings. He said some of the details about the electric-plus-gas system had to be glossed over while GM worked on the legalities of the patent process.
That patent angle also came through in the New York Times posting, as well as in discussions we've had with GM engineers as we drove a Volt from Seattle to Medford, Ore. (Sometimes the engineer was in the back seat, and sometimes he was in the driver's seat.)
Is it really worth hooking up the gas engine to the electric drive train? The engineers say yes. They say the arrangement produces a slight increase in efficiency, but they emphasize that it's not as if the gas engine takes over from the electric drive. The electric drive is indispensable, at high as well as low speeds, they say.
There may be still more secrets that GM is still keeping under wraps. (For example, exactly how much does the car weigh?) The way I see it, the fact that the gas engine might make a direct rather than an indirect contribution to the Volt's power under some circumstances is no big deal. And the fact that some people might want to think of the Volt as a hybrid rather than an all-electric car is no big deal, either. Am I wrong? Please let me know through your comments below.
Follow msnbc.com's Alan Boyle and Jim Seida as they take an 800-mile "Electric Road Trip" in a Chevy Volt ... and file their dispatches from the road.