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Inside the Volt

September 16, 2008 |  5:18 pm

The Chevrolet Volt is unveiled at a General Motors centennial celebration in Detroit. Electric car or MP3 player?

With the unveiling of the Chevy Volt today in Detroit, the world (read: your ever-lovin' friends in the media) had a chance to check out the car's interior, an aspect of the extended-range electric vehicle that's been lost in the noise over the car's range, cost, timeliness, purity and, more recently, its exterior.

We at Up to Speed had a chance to check out the interior firsthand today and ask a few questions while we were at it. General Motors went to great lengths to make sure it drives like a regular car, said Ed Welburn, global design director for the company. "The first time people are going to drive a Volt, they may be a little intimidated by the technology. They shouldn't be. All the controls are in the same location."

That's true, but the Volt still manages to look pretty different. Without a doubt, this car is aimed at the youngsters and their po-pomo tastes. The first thing that caught our eye was the dashboard. With shiny white plastic everywhere, it looks like an iPod. In fact, said Welburn, it was "somewhat inspired by the iPod and other very new industrial product design."

Volt interior The consumer electronics feel extends to the instrument panel, where instead of the normal gauges, drivers have a digital screen that, Welburn said, can be programmed to suit the driver's tastes, with an assortment of information (speed, battery charge, outside temperature, etc.) Nearby is another video screen in the usual place navigation screens go. According to Welburn, it's probably for navigation.

The gear shift is funky -- in a good way. We think it was taken from the cars in "Tron." Wide and thick, in park it's nested in the dash area, and then is ...

pulled back to put the Volt in drive or reverse.

Meanwhile, each door panel has a big curvy plastic inlay, shaped like a "potato chip" (Welburn's words) that will be available with a variety of designs. One possibility is that buyers could send in images and GM would produce custom plastic inserts. Another possible option is removable inserts so that drivers could switch them out to suit their mood -- or something. As far as we can tell, there's no flower vase, a la the VW Beetle.

Another interesting aspect of the Volt interior is the fact that it's a four-seater. That sounds like any four-door sedan, but those are actually five-seaters. This car has no middle seat in the back, since the car's 400-pound lithium Ion battery is a hump running down the middle of the car.  Instead of a middle seat, the Volt has cup-holders. This strikes us as inconsistent with the generally young-feeling design of the rest of the interior: Where are teenagers going to make out with each other? (And does this spell the end of the "bitch" seat?)

Unlike the prototype Volt, this one doesn't have a glass roof. According to Welburn, that was a weight issue, as glass weighs more than steel. But it was also a matter of preserving battery life. Since the air conditioning will run off the battery, it's important to keep the interior as cool as possible -- and a window to the sun doesn't help. On that note, the car includes heated seats; that would seem like an excessive drain on the battery, but Welburn said it should cut down on heater use, since less energy is needed to heat a person's tush than the car's entire interior.

The Volt is frequently compared to a Prius, Toyota Motor Corp.'s killer app that has been giving GM headaches for years. Like the Prius, this car is a four-door hatchback with weird and sometimes hard-to-see-through dual panes of glass. Like the Prius (and unlike the Honda Civic hybrid) it has folding rear seats that make for a big storage compartment.

But unlike the Prius, the Volt has a rather low roofline. According to Bob Boniface, who headed the Volt's design team, "in a Prius you can wear a bigger hat." GM has not released total interior volume yet, but Frank Weber, global line executive for GM's extended-range electric vehicles, said cargo volume is 300 liters, which is equivalent to 10.6 cubic feet. The Prius has 14.4 cubic feet.

But it doesn't look like it was designed by Steve Jobs.

--Ken Bensinger

Photo: The Chevrolet Volt is unveiled at a General Motors centennial celebration in Detroit. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Photo of Volt interior courtesy of General Motors