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After 800 miles in a Volt, it's just OK

Jim Seida / msnbc.com

We took the Chevy Volt to the streets of San Francisco for a final road test.

"It's OK."

That's how I replied to a text from my brother-in-law, also a car enthusiast, who knew I was driving a Chevy Volt from Seattle to San Francisco.

That's the problem with the Volt: It's just OK. And for me, just OK isn't enough for a car that costs over $40,000.

Don't get me wrong. The Volt packs some interesting technology into its five-door hatchback frame, and it really has no direct competitors. Unlike the Toyota Prius, the Volt can be plugged in to charge the onboard batteries, then driven solely on battery power. Unlike the Nissan Leaf, the Volt has a gas-powered, onboard generator that produces electricity to power the car once the batteries are depleted.

The ideal customer for this car is someone who commutes to work about 20 miles each way or less (which can be done on battery power alone) but wants the freedom to drive America's interstate highways, as we have over the past two days.

The Volt has some terrific features, such as keyless entry and keyless ignition with the key fob. It's got power windows and a five-star safety rating. It's got a USB port and a 30GB hard drive for storing your music collection. It shifts effortlessly between battery and generator power. It's smooth, relatively quiet and easy to drive on the highway ... which is really the only place I've driven it. All in all, it's a competent, uneventful car that feels pretty average.

For me, though, the strikes against it are substantial. The Volt's two rows of bucket seats accommodate only four people. The Prius, the Leaf, even the Honda Fit and Mazda 2 seat five adults. Why in the world would they make a car that seats only four? Chevy engineers say it's to accommodate the T-shaped layout of the batteries. It doesn't really matter why. It should seat five, just like almost every other car its size.

Volt interior

Jim Seida / msnbc.com

There's lots of information in the Volt's two LCD displays, and lights reflect off the glossy center stack. Note the parking brake control, lower right on the center stack.

On the center stack, the bright blue "Power" button that you press to start the car is sexy — but if the battery in your key fob dies, guess what? There's no ignition slot that accepts a key. You can unlock the doors with the key on the fob, but you can't start the car with one.

When you do start the car, two LCD screens greet you with what looks and sounds more like a science-fiction movie trailer than a car starting. I understand that this gee-whiz might excite customers in the lot, but it gets tiring after the 15th showing.

Speaking of the center stack, it's one of the worst features of the car. It's a mess of flush-mounted, touch-sensitive studs that are labeled with nothing more than white text on a glossy-body-colored surface. Big and shiny is not good for surfaces that are in front of the driver. Two more oddities on the center stack: The door lock/unlock feature for the whole car is on the passenger side, as is the parking brake switch. This brake switch is actually the closest control to the passenger, and it can be activated by gently pulling on it with one finger. From the passenger seat, I pulled on the switch at about 30 miles per hour. Sure enough, the parking brake engaged, and the car slowed to a stop. I'd move the button to the driver's side.

The front cowl is so high that the tallest of drivers still can't see the front corners of the car, meaning some guesswork might be required for parking lot maneuvers.

The low-rolling-resistance Goodyears at the corners are the main source of noise entering the cabin at highway speeds, which isn't so bad, because if it was any quieter, the sound of the generator spinning up and down, seemingly with its own agenda, might get tiresome.

Generally speaking, the Volt is a competent car. It starts, it goes. Everyone who got behind the wheel commented on how smooth and quiet it was. There are no surprises in the turns, as the car settles into a predictable stance and body roll is not excessive. The brakes, which provide regenerative power to the batteries, are up to snuff, albeit with more nose dive than I would have predicted.

Aside from not being able to start it with a key, the four-person capacity and the curious layout of some of the controls, this car is pretty much what you'd expect from Chevrolet.

But for my $41,000 ... OK, $33,500 after federal tax credit ... I expect more.


Jim Seida is senior multimedia producer at msnbc.com — and he loves to drive cars. Check out the full series of blog items, Twitter tweets, pictures and videos from this week's "Electric Road Trip."