As the loud, gas-guzzling race cars of the Richard Petty Driving Experience circled the Walt Disney World Speedway recently, quieter revolutions were taking place in the track's infield.
That's where the curious were given an opportunity to drive the much-publicized "extended-range" electric vehicle, the Chevrolet Volt.
The people lining up at the "Volt Unplugged" tour stop to try out the four-passenger compact sedan were a mix of early-adopters and the curious, as well as several employees of energy companies.
Brian Cole, a Washington, D.C., area resident, stopped by the event after getting off an ocean cruise for poker players. Cole, an early owner of Toyota's Prius hybrid, said he doesn't consider the Volt a gamble — he already has put down deposits on Volts for both him and his wife after driving the car at another event.
"It just seems like the right thing to do," Cole said. "It's cool technology."
That technology uses a lithium-ion battery pack to power the Volt's electric motor for 25 to 50 miles on a single charge, and for a small, 4-cylinder gas-powered motor to kick in to power a generator in extended-range mode, which is about 300 miles. This allows the Volt to be less dependent on charging stations compared to other electric-only vehicles coming in the near future.
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Ana Maria Mendoza of Tampa works for Seminole Electric Cooperative and said she wrote a paper on electric cars while a graduate student at the University of South Florida. She was at the Volt event with her husband, Raul.
"We've been waiting for a couple of years for an electric car," Raul said.
So what did the couple think about their experience?
Ana said she could see them buying one — eventually.
"It's very comfortable; also the drive is very smooth and quiet," she said. "What worries me is the technology. I have to do a little more research.
"I definitely think the future is electric."
2011 Chevrolet Volt
Price: $41,000 start, but the car is eligible for a $7,500 federal tax credit.
Where sold: Scheduled to go on sale in seven markets this year, including Michigan, California, Washington, D.C. — but not Florida
Charging: Trent Warnke, the Volt's development and validation engineer, said the car can be fully charged on 110-volt household outlets in about 10 hours, while it takes less than four hours with a 240-volt hookup. The car comes with a 110-volt charging link, while a 240-volt link costs $495.
How's the ride
Peter Couture and Lyra Solochek, who write the Daily Drivers column that appears in the AutoLink section on Saturdays, took the Volt for a few laps with Warnke. Here's their take.
Like all electrics, the Volt offers immediate torque and acceleration, which Warnke said is equivalent to the V-6 Camaro and even faster from zero to 30. The 3,781-pound car, heavy for what essentially is a compact sedan, takes corners well — Warnke credits the heavy battery pack — even with the Goodyear Assurance Fuel Max tires. The tires, not made for performance, did squeal on hard, quick turns. Unlike some hybrids we've driven, we didn't notice any difference in feel with the regenerative braking.
Inside, the Volt has adequate room up front, but can be cramped in the rear for taller passengers because of its sloping, hatchback design. No one will confuse the Volt with a luxury car; the few options available are leather seats, a backup camera and polished wheels. The center console seems lifted from a Scandinavian tech catalog, with a glossy white finish and touch-sensitive, backlit controls. The highlight of the interior is the two 7-inch LCD screens — one in the console for the standard nav, audio and climate systems, and one on the instrument panel that gives driver and vehicle information.
The quiet Volt also has a manually triggered pedestrian warning alert.
We know that critics say the Volt is not a true electric car; we just don't think it matters.