TRAVERSE CITY, MI – There probably never has been a more misunderstood car than the Chevrolet Volt.

In many ways, that is not surprising. With the possible exception of the $110,000 Fisker Karma, there hasn’t been a car quite like it. The Volt is a mass-produced extended-range electric car that uses an on-board gasoline engine to power electric drive motors once its battery runs out of juice.

WardsAuto has tested the Volt extensively and named its propulsion system one of Ward’s 10 Best Engines in 2011. It is a terrific car for urban driving. An owner with a typical 30-40 mile (48-64 km) commute can drive it to work every day without burning a drop of gasoline.

Yet the 1.4L gasoline engine under the hood not only eliminates the range anxiety that goes with battery-electric vehicles, it also gives the car the flexibility to drive long distances like a conventional car.

But how does the Volt perform on a long drive after its electric battery has been drained?

On our 252-mile (406-km) drive from Detroit to the Center for Automotive Research’s Management Briefing Seminars here, it performs flawlessly and is a delight to drive. It feels solidly planted on the road and is serenely quiet at highway speeds.

The seats have to be adjusted manually, but they are exceptionally comfortable on a long drive. A large amount of headroom gives the cabin an open, airy feeling. With only wind noise entering the cabin at 70 mph (113 km/h) on a flat stretch of road, we imagine ourselves sailing or flying a glider rather than driving.

We’ve made the drive from Detroit to Traverse City dozens of times and this one sticks out as the most relaxed and peaceful ever. We give the quietness and ultra-smooth power delivery of the Volt’s Voltec propulsion system most of the credit.  

The internal-combustion engine is a fine but unremarkable 1.4L naturally aspirated, port-injected, dual-VVT 84-hp DOHC 16-valve 4-cyl. What is remarkable is the way it is tuned to operate so seamlessly and efficiently with the rest of the propulsion system.

The battery runs out of power after 31 miles (50 km), but the only way we can tell is the instrument-panel readout changes the battery icon to a gas pump.  

Only when the engine has to work hard powering the car up a steep grade or accelerating onto the expressway can it be heard. And only during pedal-to-the-metal situations does the Volt begin to sound like a conventional car powered by internal combustion.

And, because the Volt does not operate like a conventional parallel hybrid, there is no jarring interplay between the gasoline and electric power sources. Instead, the car always drives like an electric car, with plenty of smooth, low-end torque.    

We end up averaging 40.3 mpg (5.8 L/100 km). That’s right on the money with the Environmental Protection Agency’s gasoline-only rating of 35/40 mpg (6.7-5.9 L/100 km) city/highway, and we were driving faster than the standardized government test allows. Plus the air-conditioner unit was working overtime during a hot day.

We drive 75 mph (121 km/h) most of the way here, winding it up past 90 mph (145 km/h) once to pass a Toyota Prius clogging the left lane. After 75 miles (121 km), we burn only 1.2 gallons (4.5 L) of gasoline and are at an indicated 60.3 mpg (3.9 L/100 km), well above the Prius’ highway rating of 48 mpg (4.9 L/100 km). Only after driving 100 miles (161 km) does our average start nearing that of the Prius.

As we pass the 75-mile mark, we remember that had we been driving a comparable battery- electric vehicle such as a Nissan Leaf or Ford Focus Electric, we would have been done for the day and looking at a 3- or 4-day trip to Traverse City.

After topping off the 9.3-gallon (35 L) tank in Detroit, we burn 6.24 gallons (23.6 L) on our journey, leaving us 99 more miles (159 km) to travel before having to find a gas station or recharging plug.  

Though pleasant, our drive leaves us with a few criticisms.

First, the Voltec powertrain’s low-end torque generally makes it fun to drive, but passing on a 2-lane highway is not its strong suit. Too hard a stomp on the accelerator is required to get the car into passing mode.

Also, premium gas is required. General Motors engineers say it’s necessary to keep the engine operating efficiently.

Last and worst is price. Our test car stickers at $44,970, including $5,000 worth of options such as navigation, leather upholstery and polished aluminum wheels. The car looks great, the shiny wheels help and the interior is good-looking and comfortable.

The Volt is far more than a gussied-up Chevy Cruze, as some critics suggest, and compared with the Leaf or $40,000 Focus Electric BEVs, its unlimited range is priceless. But the Volt still does not look unique enough to demand $45,000 unless you are a true fan of technology.

The Voltec propulsion system is superb; it just needs a sexier wrapper to fetch the price tag it requires.

dwinter@wardsauto.com