I took a short test drive yesterday in the Chevrolet Volt, GM’s range-extended vehicle that can go 25 to 50 miles on battery power before switching over to gas. (Note: we’ll have videos up soon, so check back in this space.)

The Volt will go into production in mid-November and hit dealerships a few weeks later, just in time to compete with the all-electric Nissan Leaf and, to a lesser extent, the all-electric sedan offered by startup Coda. All three cars offer a 100,000-mile/eight-year warranty to alleviate consumer concerns about battery lifespans. (And all three are only launching in limited numbers and locations in December.)

The Volt is currently on a nationwide tour ahead of its December release, so I drove my traditional gas clunker over to Houston’s Rice University campus and took the Volt for a quick spin. As I chatted with Monte Duran of the Volt’s communications team, a bright red Mustang revved its engine. “That is not a green technology,” he said. “It sounds awesome, though.”

Which segues to a good point. At $41,000 before the federal $7,500 tax credit ($33,500 including the credit), the Volt ain’t cheap. How many people will want to shell out big bucks for a Volt because it’s green, and how many will want to drive it simply because it’s “awesome” — green or not?

The verdict

Aside from the environmentally-friendly feel-good experience, there are economic benefits to driving a green car, at least in theory: The Volt team estimates that it takes about 13 kilowatts to charge up the car from empty to full, at a cost of $1 to $1.50 in most markets, and that driving one can save you roughly one-third the cost of gas you’d otherwise spend. And if you’ve been pondering buying a green car but worried about limited range, the Volt is middle ground — the gas engine can give you up to 310 additional miles in range.

But here’s the rub: Driving a  car that runs partially on battery takes a shift in your driving behavior and thinking. You have to plan charge times. And you’ll likely need to adjust your driving behavior too — from honking to warn pedestrians that the stealthy, silent hybrid is approaching to becoming a more efficient driver (fewer hard stops, more steady pace).

So here’s my verdict: The Chevy Volt is a neat car and a nice drive, but living with one day in and day out will take some behavioral and mental changes. (That is, of course, if you don’t already own a hybrid or all-electric vehicle.) If you’re willing to adjust to a new way of maintaining and monitoring your car, then the Volt is a nice option that walks the line between all-electric and all-gas cars.

Becoming aware of your driving style

It’s all about the dashboard and console in this car, which has bright, user-friendly graphics, display and dials that I imagine you would master in time (embarrassingly, I was flummoxed when I initially tried to put the car into gear). Both screens are completely digital and show whether you’re running on battery or gasoline, and — very handy — estimate how many miles you have left on battery or gasoline power.

The console is also designed to make you more aware of how efficiently you’re driving the Volt and what the car is doing. As you drive, it uses animated graphics to show if the car battery is juicing up from regenerative braking. There’s also a meter on the dashboard that warns you when you’re driving inefficiently — a friendly leaf icon moves up and down and turns yellow if you accelerate too quickly or break too hard, all of which cut down your mileage. The console also offers tips on efficient climate control in the car and efficient driving.

The Volt also tallies up the numbers on your miles-per-gallon, and displays a pie chart that shows how much of your driving relies on battery power and how much uses gas.

All of this inspires a self-awareness that we’re not used to as traditional drivers. When I drive, I look at the dashboard for only two things — speed and gas level. Doran told me that you can reprogram the console to show you less information. But much like the philosophy behind smart meters and home energy management, more information on your gas-guzzling habits may also spur you to try harder to run mostly off battery power.

Charging up

I’m generally poor at planning ahead. That’s not an uncommon theme in busy Americans’ lives, though, so Volt’s designers have tried to compensate for this.

You can enter what time you plan to depart in the morning, and the Volt will tell you when you need to start charging — and can even automatically start charging at preset times. Still, all that nifty technology doesn’t change the fact that you need to remember to plug it in and program a start time if you want to get the most out of the battery.

On a busy day, I wouldn’t put it past myself to bring in the groceries after parking the car, then completely forget about plugging it in. But that’s something I’d expect you’d overcome with time — and the gas engine’s always there in case you forget to charge up. The ignition is keyless — so just don’t forget to take the keys with you when you exit the car. (Now that I think about it, maybe the Volt isn’t a car for the scatterbrained …)

All that said, I liked the look and feel of the center console, which comes standard with GPS and five years of OnStar service. Oh, and the drive was smooth too.

A few other interesting notes

  • The Volt’s engineering team had to do some serious weight reduction in other parts of the car to compensate for the 400-450 pound battery.
  • Volts will roll off the production line at about 60 cars per day.
  • In addition to the regular horn, there’s a pedestrian-friendly horn you can activate by pulling on the turn-signal switch. It’s a quieter, “friendlier” honk that alerts pedestrians to the silent Volt’s approach. Internally, staffers call it the “hybrid hello.”
  • You can preheat or precool the car remotely, warming it up while it’s still plugged in.
  • Chevrolet offers a smartphone app that will allow you to monitor and manage the Volt from afar.

GreenBeat 2010Are you a green executive or entrepreneur? If so, sign up now for GreenBeat 2010 — the year’s seminal conference on the smart grid — November 3-4 at Stanford University. World leaders in smart grid initiatives will debate how the new “Super Grid” is creating huge opportunities in cars, energy storage, and renewables. GreenBeat 2010 is hosted by VentureBeat and SSE Labs of Stanford University. Go here for full conference details and to apply for the 2010 Innovation Competition.