I barely noticed when the Chevy Volt stopped acting like an all-electric car. And that's exactly what General Motors is going for.
The Volt has been touted as the "ideal near-term solution" for drivers who want to pass up gasoline pumps most of the time, but still need to take trips that go beyond where any battery can take them. So for the first 25 to 50 miles, the Volt is powered purely by the juice from its 430-pound battery. But there comes a time when a gasoline-powered motor revs up to give the batteries a boost.
For us, that time came as we were heading up Interstate 5 in Tacoma, 32.9 miles into our 800-mile trip from Seattle to San Francisco. A green, battery-shaped icon on the Volt's high-tech dashboard display went poof, and was instantly replaced by a blue icon shaped like an old-style gasoline pump. Another display, off to the side, lit up with a green engine sitting above a computer simulation of the car's turning wheels.
I felt as if someone was playing a video game right beneath the windshield — and I had to take care to keep my eyes on the road instead of watching the game. But in terms of how the car felt and handled? No difference. No difference at all.
For the rest of the day, then, we're driving a car with a gasoline engine that is powering the electric drive train. When we stopped to fill the Volt's 9-gallon gas tank in Tacoma, the tripmeter read 45.3 miles, with about a third of a gallon of gas expended. If you don't count the cost of the electricity, our fuel efficiency is 128.1 miles per gallon. If you do count the electric cost, I figure we still did the equivalent of 80 mpg or so.
Our car is part of a fleet of six Volts heading south on the first leg of a nationwide "Volt Unplugged" tour. We're due to stop later this morning in Portland, Ore., to meet with electric-vehicle enthusiasts and let them drive the cars. If it weren't for the video-game display, would they be able to tell that our Volt is running on gas power? We'll find out in a couple of hours.
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.