My test drive of the Chevrolet Volt was well-timed — to coincide with the week when every car enthusiast was arguing about whether or not the Volt is actually an electric vehicle! If you missed the kerfluffle, MNN’s transportation blogger Jim Motavalli has the skinny (Wired and NY Times provide further, nitty gritty details) — but basically, under some very specific conditions when the electric battery’s depleted, the Volt’s gas motor does give some power to the wheels.

Luckily, my test drive wasn’t so long as to deplete the battery — so I took an all-electric ride! I got in — and immediately had to pull the seat way forward — done with manual, non-electric levers, so as to conserve energy to drive the car, as the Chevy guy explained. Once settled, I undid the parking brake by pushing a white button, turned the car on by pushing a black button, shifted to drive — then started a slow, silent coast around Sunset Gower Studios before turning out into the streets of Hollywood.

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For greener car newbies, the Volt is a car that runs on an all-electric motor for 25 to 50 miles a charge, depending on driving and weather conditions. That means for most people — who drive fewer than 40 miles a day — the Volt can act as an all-electric car. But for longer distances, a gas generator kicks in to turn the electric motor. As recent revelations show, that boost can power the car itself under certain conditions to get you up to 310 more miles.

Now I'm not a car expert or fanatic. I am best described as a rather reluctant driver who sees the car just as a non-preferred but sometimes practical mode of transportation. Which is to say — I didn’t do anything crazy with the Volt; I just drove it the way I normally drive — and am jotting down my non-expert impressions here.

Basically, if you know how to drive a car, you can drive a Volt. While the interior of the Volt is rather futuristic-looking, drivers will recognize most buttons and displays. They’ll also likely notice, however, that the Volt really is quiet — and a smooth ride, since the electric engine doesn’t need to shift gears. I felt stealthy quietly gliding over the streets, amid the usual din of Hollywood traffic!

The quiet let me concentrate a bit on keeping my electric drive as green as possible — aided by the green ball display in the dash. The idea is to keep the green ball floating in the middle — sudden acceleration or braking makes the ball bounce up or down, letting you know you’re not using energy efficiently.

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One feature of the Volt that I had a tough time getting used to was the brakes, which seemed to work more slowly than I’m used to in my own car. The Chevy guy explained that what I’m experiencing is Volt’s regenerative braking system, which basically turns the momentum of the car into more electricity. He assured me that if I braked suddenly, the car would stop suddenly — but my attempts at gradual stops that kept the green ball floating ended up being much more gradual than intended — which stressed me out enough that I refused to make turns on the test drive unless given the direction well in advance!

Current hybrid owners may already be used to this kind of braking system and not have the stress I experienced. And since Volt’s brakes not only create energy but make the brakes last longer, the regenerative braking system seems well worth getting used to.

Of course, I won’t actually be getting a Volt. The car will start getting delivered to eager owners next month. (The car starts at $41,000 — but a $7,500 federal tax credit and $5,000 CARB credit for Californians sweeten the deal. The car can be leased for as little as $350 a month.) I’m betting almost none of these people will be apartment dwellers like myself. Just like the Nissan Leaf, the Volt requires easy access to a charging system* (average cost: $2,200, of which $2,000 is covered by federal funds) — which, unless you’ve got a garage, you’re unlikely to have access to one. [*Update, 10/21/10: Correction -- The Volt can actually charge in about 10 hours on a standard 120-volt outlet! The charging system would only be required for a faster charge -- 4 hours on a 240-volt outlet]

Want to test drive the Volt yourself? The Volt Unplugged Tour is currently letting EV-curious people test drive the car in 12 cities across the U.S. Unfortunately for Angelenos, the tour just left Los Angeles — but will be in San Diego tomorrow and then moves on to Texas before heading up the East Coast. Have you test driven the Volt? What did you think of the brakes?

A practical test drive of the Chevy Volt
MNN's Lifestyle blogger takes the Chevrolet Volt for a test drive in Hollywood.