In Defense of the Chevy Volt

GM's battery-powered car is flawed yet wonderful.

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Chevrolet Volt

Cars don't usually vote in elections, but one vehicle is playing an unusual role in this year's presidential campaign: the Chevrolet Volt.

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The plug-in Volt, which debuted in late 2010, has become a political target for Republicans, who associate it with the 2009 General Motors bailout and with President Obama's fondness for controversial green-energy programs. Conservative pundit Glenn Beck called it "crappy." Rush Limbaugh huffed about GM "trying to kill its customers." Obama's likely opponent, Mitt Romney, says the Volt is "an idea whose time has not come."

GM CEO Dan Akerson, not surprisingly, complains that the Volt has become a "political punching bag," with sales hurt by partisan bickering that has nothing to do with the car itself.

I spent a week driving the Volt recently, courtesy of GM, and like many other reviewers, I think Beck and the other sourpusses are totally wrong about the car. The Volt is sturdy and enjoyable, grippy on curves, visually appealing and supremely quiet. Its high starting price of $39,995 means that it's not practical for most drivers. But it's also a technological marvel that may represent an important step forward in the history of powertrains and fuel efficiency.

The Volt is also the victim of inaccurate propaganda, and it happens to be an idea that other automakers are copying, not laughing at. The Volt's critics may be the ones who end up looking foolish.

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The Volt got its start in 2007, largely at the prodding of GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz, an old-school horsepower junkie who thinks global warming is a hoax and is nobody's idea of a tree-hugger. Back then, GM was desperate to reclaim some of the turf archrival Toyota had been nibbling away. At the same time, the California startup, Tesla, had been getting tons of publicity for the sexy, all-electric Roadster sports car it was about to launch. Lutz put those two things together and saw an opportunity for GM.

"When Tesla announced they were building a car, I thought, 'If some little West Coast outfit can do this, we can no longer stand by,'" Lutz told me in 2007, when I went to Detroit to check out the Volt.

Detractors refer to the car as the "Obamamobile," as if it were spawned by the 2009 GM bailout and the U.S. government's sudden ownership of the nation's largest automaker. But the Volt had been underway for more than two years at that point, and GM considered it an important "halo" vehicle meant to recapture some credibility on technology and fuel economy. If the Obama administration did anything to aid the Volt's development, it was simply to prevent it from getting axed while GM went through a severe downsizing in bankruptcy.

The Volt has had a few technical problems, including a fix needed to assure that fires don't occur if a coolant leaks after the car has been involved in a crash. The fix led to a recall earlier this year of all 8,000 Volts that had been purchased—which generated hoots from critics. But there are hundreds of thousands of recalls every year, and unlike some automakers, GM fixed the Volt voluntarily, without being forced into action by the government. The cars are now presumably as safe as any on the road. It's worth pointing out that hair-on-fire opportunists eager to ignite a safety scare where none exists actually undermine safety by diverting attention from real safety problems to phony ones.

It's also short-sighted to fault breakthrough technology if it happens to be flawed or impractical on the first try. The Volt is a novel vehicle, combining a large lithium-ion battery with a small gas-powered engine. The fully-charged battery can power the car for about 35 miles, then the gas engine kicks in, acting like a generator that charges the Volt's electric powertrain. Overall, the Volt's fuel efficiency is the equivalent of 93 miles per gallon. If run mainly on electricity, the Volt can cut fueling costs by about 75 percent.

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Like a lot of new technology, however, the Volt's battery is too expensive to compete with traditional systems that have been mass-produced for decades. That's why the Volt's price is so high, and it's the main drawback for anybody seeking a basic family sedan. Plus, the bulky battery runs down the center of the vehicle, taking up space, which limits the total occupancy to four.

To Romney and his fellow snickerers, those drawbacks are ample evidence that the Volt is a dog. But nearly every innovator from Thomas Edison to Steve Jobs knows that getting technology right is a matter of trial and error. Any inventor who quit after one unsuccessful experiment would never get anywhere. These days, size usually decreases as technology improves. And price usually comes down as production scales up, a basic law of economics that Romney, the multimillionaire financier, must have once known and simply forgotten.

To aid the development of electric cars, the federal government has been offering subsidies of up to $7,500 per vehicle for the Volt and others like it, including the Nissan Leaf and the Mitsubishi MiEV (both imports). Is this free money another Obama folly? Perhaps, except those subsidies started in the Bush administration that preceded Obama, and had bipartisan support before some political consultant wrote a memo outing the Volt as a potential campaign liability for Obama.

Even with subsidies, electric vehicles must be driven for years before an owner would recoup the added cost through savings on gas, and they may never catch on completely. But GM and other automakers—which are in business to turn a profit—have decided there's a good business case to be made for pursuing alternatives to internal-combustion engines fueled by gasoline. That's because the nature of experimentation is that it sometimes leads to fresh discoveries that can provide a competitive edge. No successful company forever sticks with the technology of the present. And if there's a war in the Middle East or some other crisis that doubles or triples the price of oil, the decision to make a down payment on electric technology might look brilliant.

The Volt will soon have more company in the electric aisle. The Ford Focus electric will go on sale soon, at the same price as its Chevy counterpart. The Toyota RAV4 electric will join them later this year, starting at $49,800. Other electrics are coming from Honda, Audi and BMW. And the Chinese, which are investing heavily in electric powertrains, may soon be selling a whole range of battery-powered cars, in China and elsewhere.

What a bunch of dummies. Don't they know the Volt is crappy?

Rick Newman is the author of Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.