The Chevy Volt, which begins production Thursday and is set to reach dealers in several states before the end of the year, is among the earliest and highest-profile models in a slew of plug-in cars set to launch between now and 2013.
As with many new technologies, a number of hurdles stand between electric cars and success on the mass market. The earliest plug-in car buyers will contend with high price tags, limited charging infrastructure, uncertainty about long-term durability and resale values, and insecurity about hitting the road without being able to refuel at just any convenient gas station.
But automakers have devised different strategies for tackling these challenges and, they hope, for winning over thousands of customers in the years ahead. Some, like General Motors with its Chevy Volt, are holding off on all-electric models and opting instead for plug-in hybrid technologyâ€”providing the assurance of a gas engine as a backup. In some cases, such as Toyota’s upcoming plug-in hybrid Prius, limiting the size of the battery pack could also help to keep costs down.
Virtually all of the plug-in models currently in the pipeline, however, will sell initially at a premium over conventional and even hybrid counterparts. The Volt is slated to sell for $41,000.
The Volt runs on electricity stored in a lithium-ion battery pack for the first 25 to 50 miles. After that, a small gas-fueled generator kicks in and enables the car to travel â€œhundreds of miles,â€ according to the automaker. So as James Bell, an analyst with Kelley Blue Book, put it, the Volt will allow you to â€œdrive to grandmaâ€™s house or Vegas anytime you want to,â€ even as charging options on U.S. highways remain few and far between.
The Volt has a top speed of 100 mph and comes with some higher-end features, such as a 7-inch touch screen that displays navigation and vehicle information, a Bose audio system, remote starting capability, and five years of the OnStar Directions & Connections service. GM says the car will take approximately ten hours to charge with a standard 110-volt outlet, or four hours with a 220-volt charging station.
â€œItâ€™s well done in every way,â€ said Felix Kramer, the founder of CalCars.org and a longtime electric vehicle advocate. â€œThe only points against it,â€ he said, are the relatively high price tag and the fact that it seats four instead of five (a T-shaped battery pack runs down the center of the cabin). For most consumers, said Bell, the Volt could be a viable replacement vehicle, â€œunless you have to pull a boat or have a large family.â€