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While we were watching the Yankees sweep the Red Sox over the weekend, the former slugger, David Ortiz, came up to bat. Suddenly, one of those electronic advertising signs behind home plate flashed a strange message: the number 23 next to what looked like a happy face, on a green background.

For a few minutes, we thought perhaps the Yankees were preparing to re-retire Don Mattingly’s uniform number. Then we looked closer and noticed the happy face was actually a plug.

This minor mystery was resolved today when the company that used to be the world’s largest carmaker proclaimed that the official fuel economy rating for its new electric car, the Chevy Volt, is an astounding 230 mpg.

Unfortunately, like everything else that has come out of Detroit in the past 50 years, you have to read the fine print to discover there are some major caveats attached to this proclamation.

The Volt, scheduled to go on sale in 2010, is powered by lithium-ion batteries. Unlike the gas-electric hybrids currently on the market, this new Chevy will be able to operate solely on battery power (assuming the battery is charged) without consuming gasoline — sort of.

Here’s the catch: the Volt does not need gasoline as long as you don’t drive more than 40 miles. Once you exceed the 40-mile limit, the new Chevy begins to consume gas and the loudly proclaimed fuel economy rating starts dropping like Niagara Falls.

It works like this: If you drive 50 miles, no gas is consumed for the first 40 miles and during the last 10 miles 0.2 gallons are consumed. So, for a 50-mile trip, the Volt would in fact achieve its 230 mpg standard. But if the driver continues on to 80 miles, this drops to 100 mpg.

If the driver goes 300 miles, the fuel economy would be 62.5 mpg, still impressive by current averages but certainly not as impressive as GM’s earth-shattering press release would lead you to believe. And if you live in New York and want to drive to Boston to see the Yankees sweep the Red Sox again later this year, well, you get the picture.

Sort of like the difference between David Ortiz hitting a baseball before he takes his ”vitamins” and after.

A few other minor details:

–You will need to find a place to plug your Volt in every night and give it the 10-kilowatt-hours of recharge it needs to travel its gas-free 40 miles.

— General Motors currently is producing only 10 Volts per month and is expected to slap a $40,000 sticker price on the electric car when it is available for purchase, which gives new meaning to the term ”sticker shock.”

We’re going to wait for the model that comes with fine Corinthian leather and a really, really long extension cord.

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