Chevy Volt Owners Take Flack For GM Flubs

Bailout haters harass GM customers for helping the automaker get back on its feet.

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A spokesmodel plugs a Chevy Volt into a charging station at the 2011 New York International Auto Show.
A spokesmodel plugs a Chevy Volt into a charging station at the 2011 New York International Auto Show.

General Motors earned considerable enmity in 2009 when it declared bankruptcy and accepted a $51 billion bailout from the U.S. government. Some GM customers have since discovered that they're in the crossfire as well.

A few owners of the Chevrolet Volt, GM's innovative plug-in hybrid, report that they've been booed, heckled and vandalized, presumably because they own a car deemed offensive to fellow taxpayers. These tales of Volt rage were uncovered by the car-research site Edmunds, which runs several online forums where owners swap stories.

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A Michigan Volt owner, Dave Muse, told Edmunds that he drew boos when driving his Volt in a famed Detroit automotive parade — a town, of all places, that gained as much as any city from the auto bailouts. Another time, a stranger insulted his car in a parking lot, then slammed the door shut while Muse was trying to get out. Muse also says his plug-in generates occasional family arguments.

Scott Leapman, a Volt owner in Florida, once stopped at an intersection next to a pickup truck whose driver rolled down his window and asked, "How do you like my car?" When Leapman asked what he meant, the driver answered, "My taxes paid for it!" then sped off.

A spokesmodel plugs a Chevy Volt into a charging station at the 2011 New York International Auto Show.
A spokesmodel plugs a Chevy Volt into a charging station at the 2011 New York International Auto Show.

A third driver, whom Edmunds didn't identify, said he was run off the road by a Volt hater.

[READ: A Defense of the Chevy Volt]

GM and its electrified creation have been unusually controversial this year, largely because of the polarizing presidential election. President Barack Obama and his supporters routinely reminded voters that "Bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive," a line that made GM executives cringe, but obviously didn't hurt the Obama campaign, which won key states, like Ohio and Michigan, that stood to gain from the auto bailouts.

But to many conservatives, "Government Motors" is an egregious symbol of an expansionist federal government that wastes taxpayer dollars. GM CEO Dan Akerson has pleaded with politicians and pundits not to use the automaker as a "political football." But that's a tough sell given that GM still owes the government about $26 billion, and it's not clear that taxpayers will ever get all their money back.

Still, the Volt may be the wrong target for bailout critics. It's true that overall sales are low, due largely to the $39,145 starting price (which doesn't include a federal tax credit of up to $7,500). And there remain huge questions about whether electric vehicles will ever be economically viable. But GM knew the Volt would be a low-volume prototype meant to test the practical appeal of a car that can run 30 to 40 miles on a charge before a gas engine kicks in. And it's hardly the only automaker aggressively investing in EVs. Nissan, Honda, Toyota, and Ford all have electric vehicles in advanced stages of development, much as automakers experimented with hybrids starting 10 or 15 years ago.

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It's also a mistake to peg the Volt as a product of the 2009 bailout. The Volt was started at least four years before GM declared bankruptcy, when nobody imagined the government would have to rescue the world's biggest automaker. At the time, GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz—nobody's idea of a tree-hugging socialist—championed the Volt as a way for GM to regain lost ground from Toyota, which had become an environmental and technology leader.

The Volt did survive the crash diet GM went on during bankruptcy, which indicates that government minds approved of the project. But many other projects survived as well. GM-bashers could just as legitimately razz drivers of the Chevy Corvette, the Cadillac CTS or the Buick Regal if they want to diss car buyers supporting the bailout through their choice of wheels. Or go after Dodge Ram or Chrysler Town & Country drivers, since Chrysler, too, got a bailout. As for Volt owners, it's time to leave them alone.

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