The 2017 Chevy Volt makes plug-in hybrids feel normal

It’s amazing what a visit to the local car wash can do to gussy-up the 2017 Chevy Volt. The red "extended-range electric" — industry-speak for a gas hybrid that can drive a ways on electric power alone — pulled off the conveyor belt next to a Ford Fusion Energi, another plug-in hybrid that also happened to be red.

A car wash worker polished up the wheels on both rides as the Ford owner and I looked on. From our rear view, the cars’ physiques were remarkably similar: both are average-looking, contemporary family sedans that don’t scream "Hey, I’m electric!"

It might seem counterintuitive, but that’s probably a good thing.

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The second-generation Volt was first made available in the 2016 model year, but is now widely available as a 2017. This car has come along way from its 2010 introduction: the first-gen Volt was an experiment of sorts to see if a mass-market brand could successfully bring a plug-in hybrid to market. Fresh from bankruptcy and eager to play up its greener initiatives, GM leaned hard into the Volt’s electric powertrain and downplayed its more real-world characteristics like the gasoline engine that would kick in after electric power was used up. The gimmicky nature of its promotional campaign led to a lot of confusion about how the car actually worked, and it didn’t help that the interior was utilitarian to the point of feeling like a dressed-up golf cart.

GM engineers coaxed us to stay light on the throttle and smooth on the brake

It’s been nearly six years since I first drove a Volt at the media launch in a Detroit suburb. Outside of my driver’s education class, I had never felt so self-conscious behind the wheel as I did at that launch. GM engineers coaxed us to stay light on the throttle and smooth on the brake. My driving partner and I won a contest among four waves of journalists for the best fuel economy achieved through mindful driving.

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But in everyday situations, who wants to drive like a school bus driver? Driving that first-gen model was like signing up for an overhyped detoxifying cleanse — a whole lot of effort with so-so results garnering only 38 miles of electric range before the gas kicked in. Its high sticker price (even with a tax credit) and low range stopped it from being a blockbuster on the showroom floor, or a leader of the electric revolution as GM leaders had hoped. Back then, the Nissan Leaf and the Volt battled for relevancy amid criticisms of their very existence. Despite mediocre sales of EVs and plug-in hybrids across the board, the Volt has hung on because... well, GM needs it to. Temporarily low gas prices aside, greener transportation technologies aren’t going away. And in the process, the Volt has become a much better car, both under the hood and on the surface.

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Fast forward to 2016, and the new Volt is in a much better position to glean the fruits of a car-buying public that’s starting to recognize the value of electric power. Traditional automakers have stepped up to latch on to some of the mojo most closely associated with Tesla. The EV market, while still small, is coming of age — and GM is reaping the benefits of getting back in the game early.

This Volt blends in. And when I say it "blends in," I mean it feels like a true family car. The interior design follows the same could-be-a-Chevy-Cruze vibe from the seating position to the center screen. (The Volt has a higher-tech, all-digital instrument cluster that the Cruze lacks, however.) The fifth seat might not fit an entire grown-up, but it adds to the overall space and functionality. En route to a Brooklyn Cyclones game, there was ample room for my kid, my infant car seat, and a stroller, which fit neatly in the hatchback trunk.

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In order to appeal to families, safety features are a must. Forward collision alert, blind spot monitoring, and automatic emergency braking are included in the suite of options. And this is a pretty thoroughly high-tech car, too, as most recent Chevys are: the Volt comes standard with Bluetooth, OnStar, LTE, Wi-Fi, CarPlay, Android Auto, two USB ports, an auxiliary jack, and an 8-inch touchscreen. It also offers automatic cruise control, which keeps a safe distance from the car ahead. (It is also a rudimentary, core component of self-driving tech.)

Since the Volt’s debut, lithium batteries have gotten a whole lot better. The twin electric motors on the Volt are powered by an 18.4 kWh battery pack and produce 149 horsepower with 53 miles on a single charge. The Volt has also shed over 200 pounds of weight at 3,543 pounds. (To put that in perspective, a big Bentley weighs 6,000 pounds.) Less weight and more torque mean that the Volt is not a total slug when you nail the throttle. Driving this car, especially in a busy city, is not a total letdown. And the weird whir of the powertrain in the first-gen model has diminished, making for a better-sounding ride. To charge up again, the Volt takes about 13 hours from a standard 120-volt outlet or 4.5 hours in a more ideal 240-volt charging station.

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When the new Volt uses up that electric power, the 1.5-liter gasoline and generator kick in and earn a respectable 42 miles per gallon, a 5 mpg improvement on the prior model. (It’s worth noting the new Volt no longer requires premium gasoline for those rare fuelings, which is nice.) Over the course of my week-long loan, I decided to drive the Volt until the bitter end — until all 53 electric miles had been sapped, and deep into its 420 miles of total range, to see how the car measured up. It was a week of zipping around town to baseball games, camp pickup, grocery stores, doctor’s appointments, and the usual summer outings to Coney Island. I sat in traffic jams for hours, ventured a bit upstate, but still I couldn’t seem to run the Volt dry. There’s nothing anxious about driving far from home on this range.

I couldn’t seem to run the Volt dry

Back at the car wash, the Ford owner let out a low whistle as the fresh coat of paint on the Volt glistened in the sunlight. (It’s a great, deep shade of red.) Then he asked me the question I’d heard all week long from curious New Yorkers: how many EV miles? When I responded — 53 — he shook his head. "Damn, I wish I’d waited for that car to come out."