LOS ANGELES — A moment like this calls for a Tom Wolfe lead: Holy mackerel! Motor Trend and Automobile Magazine just named the Chevy Volt the car of the year! Both of them! Separately! On the same day! And guess where I am? Driving through the heart of America, plugging into the main vein, with the Hollywood sign winking at me through the Los Angeles smog — commanding the wheelhouse of a brand-new, incredibly cool Chevrolet Volt!

Rob Peterson and Britta Gross of GM, both integral to the Volt program, dare me to guess when the car switches from battery-only to using the gas engine as a generator, and I totally miss it. The car is always very quiet. It also handles well, has the acceleration of a V-6 even in battery mode, and boasts excellent brakes. There’s no learning curve — you just get in and drive.

The Volt has certainly shaken things up, and it’s doing wonders for GM’s staid image as it launches its IPO. The auto magazines normally put Ferraris and Lamborghinis on the cover, but Motor Trend has the Volt up there. “101 MPH!” it says. And 72 mpg, too!

Angus MacKenzie, Motor Trend’s editor, told me the Volt was picked out of 21 contenders because it excelled in the key criteria, including design, engineering and performance. And it’s a game changer. “For the first time in 100 years the internal-combustion engine is no longer the default choice,” he said. “The Volt delivers what GM promised — it operates as an EV within a certain duty cycle, but also offers freedom from range anxiety. For most companies, I think it’s on the money.”

Here's MacKenzie at the wheel:

Motor Trend drove the car for almost 300 miles, charging at night and going through a routine of freeway and stop-start city driving. The result was the use of 58.6 kilowatt-hours of electricity, plus 2.36 gallons of gas — equivalent to 72.9 mpg.

As you’ve probably heard by now, the $41,000 Volt uses its gas engine mostly as a generator to supply electricity. The car has 25 to 50 miles of all-electric travel, and Rob Peterson of GM, the custodian of the car I’m driving, tells me that in his daily commute he hardly ever uses gas. For many, the Volt will be an electric car most of the time, though the onboard computer does tell the gas engine to drive the wheels now and then.

MacKenzie says the Volt would “never have gotten past the bean counters in the old days,” and that’s certainly true. I’ve been reading Alex Taylor III’s "Sixty to Zero," which is a jaundiced history of the Big Three, and he makes it clear that accountants ran the company for a long time, resulting in dull cars on multiple platforms. GM struggled in particular to build a credible small car, but the Chevrolet Cruze (far more likely than the Volt to be a profit center for GM) will likely change that. Has GM gotten its mojo back?

MacKenzie admits that the Volt is no Ferrari — he describes it as a “reasonably peppy compact car that does everything you would expect of it.” Sure, but that doesn’t convey that the Volt takes off the line with far more elan than any other compact you could name. It’s a fun car, and a technical tour de force, and no wonder GM is so proud that it offered to let me drive this one to the Los Angeles Auto Show.


Automobile Magazine, which said the Volt is its first-ever electric winner, nonetheless also stepped out of performance mode and proclaimed EVs as “technology of the year.” As the Volt and Nissan Leaf hit the market, “2011 is sure to be a banner year for those that espouse the virtues of the lowly electron to power their cars.” Of course, Automobile being Automobile, Technical Editor Don Sherman felt compelled to add, “This is not to suggest that Ferrari’s screaming eight-and twelve-cylinder engines are obsolete.” Maybe not obsolete, but definitely an endangered species.

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