2010 should be remembered as the year that the car industry finally got one step ahead of the legislators.

After decades of being critcised for dragging its collective feet on everything from safety to pollution, this year saw the electrically driven Nissan Leaf and the Chevrolet Volt rolling down the production line.

While the Leaf is great to drive and impressively executed, it’s the Volt that points the way to the future, combining a battery pack for zero-emissions running in the city centres of the future, with the back-up of a small internal combustion engine for long runs away from the nearest charging point.

The Volt is deeply impressive on a number of levels. It was developed during the worst recession for decades by a company that was bankrupt for much of the time.

The styling, interior package and dash design look and feel like the future. And the technical solution that allows the conventional Astra platform to be transformed into an ‘extended range electric vehicle’ is very clever.

It’s not perfect, though. The engine is disappointingly conventional and disappointingly intrusive when it cuts in to generate electricity for the drive motor.

But when we look back in 20 years to the point the automobile really changed direction, it’ll be to the Volt and the shift, 125 years after the arrival of the Benz Motorwagen, that saw the car’s engine no longer directly connected to its wheels.