It's amazing how remarkable normal can be. The most common comment folks have about the Chevy Volt is how much driving it feels like driving an ordinary automobile. Sure, there are lots of cool graphics on the dashboard screens, but the handling is remarkably ... unremarkable.
Here's how Intel's Ed Wynne put it after he test-drove a Volt around the computer -chip company's campus in Hillsboro, Ore., as part of a stopover organized by the Oregon Electric Vehicle Association:
"It felt like an absolutely normal car," he told me. "I don't know whether that's good or bad. I feel like it's a good thing."
Wynne said he wasn't always certain whether the Volt's gas-powered engine was on or off. During the course of a low-speed drive, the engine tends to stop or start, based on how much load is put on the batteries. That pattern of driving cut into our gas mileage figures, with the result that our car registered an efficiency readout of 43.1 miles per gallon after 236 miles.
That's not bad, but it's not a record-setting performance either. Once you subtract out the 32.9 miles we drove without using a bit of gas, the figure comes out to roughly 40 mpg for the gas-powered engine. (Of course, that's not the official EPA rating ... your mileage may vary.) When I observed that some msnbc.com users were unimpressed with the gasoline fuel-economy numbers, Tim Perzanowski, a senior project engineer at General Motors, said the fuel-saving challenge calls for different strategies, suited to different driving styles.
"There's no silver bullet for our energy needs," he said. The real benefit of the Volt comes into play if you usually drive 40 miles or less in the course of a day, but take on the occasional long-distance ride ... like our two-day, 800-mile sojourn from Seattle to San Francisco, for example.
Perzanowski also explained that it takes a few engineering tricks to make an electric-drive vehicle like the Volt "feel" like an absolutely normal car. For example, the pushback you feel when you step on the brake? That's divorced from the actual mechanics of braking the car. It's engineered into the braking system to provide feedback for drivers as they press their foot on the pedal. Some reviewers have commented that the braking on the Volt can be firmer than they expected — but I suppose you get used to it.
- Engineers built in a little bit of forward "creep" if you have your foot off the brake and the accelerator while the car is in gear. There's no need to do that with an electric car, but drivers who are used to conventional cars expect to have that creep.
- As I mentioned last week, the Volt is programmed to shut down the gas engine when you come to a stop and begin moving again, in part to avoid confusing drivers who would worry about having the engine running while they're trying to stop. Even after the car switches from its all-electric, all-the-time mode, the engine will occasionally shut down, depending on how much the batteries have been charged up.
- A little green ball spins constantly on the right side of the dashboard display, indicating how eco-friendly your driving style is. Drive too aggressively, and the ball rises toward the top. Too timidly, and the ball falls. The ball is GM's version of the vines and leaves you see sprouting (or withering) on a Ford Fusion Hybrid's dashboard.
- The Volt has three modes of operation: normal, sport and mountain. "Sport" is for when you want more torque for a faster, more sports-car-like response. "Mountain" provides more oomph from the batteries as well as the generator when climbing a steeper grade. When you roll down the other side of the mountain pass, you can shift into low gear to increase your regenerative braking and build up the battery power.
Chevrolet added a couple of features to address the issue that the Volt can sometimes be too quiet. There's a stuttery little horn that you can activate by pushing the lever on the left side of the steering wheel, just to let pedestrians know you're coming. And when you turn the Volt on or off, it makes a simulated power-up or power-down sound — just to give drivers the illusion that this is "an absolutely normal car."
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.