If the Chevy Volt Is Such a Flop, Why Are Competitors Copying It?

Other carmakers seem to respect the controversial electric car much more than GM's many critics.

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President Barack Obama gets behind the wheel of a Chevy Volt during his tour of the General Motors Auto Plant in Hamtramck, Mich., July 30, 2010.
President Barack Obama gets behind the wheel of a Chevy Volt during his tour of the General Motors Auto Plant in Hamtramck, Mich., July 30, 2010.

Honda just announced that starting in January, it will begin selling a plug-in version of its Accord sedan for about $40,000 — nearly twice the starting price of the regular gas-powered model.

Naturally, critics ranging from Rush Limbaugh to Rick Santelli to Bill O'Reilly jumped all over Honda, calling the plug-in Accord the dumbest idea since—

Huh? What's that? You mean the plug-in Accord hasn't been trashed by the anti-electric-car lobby? Gee, that's odd, because all of those folks have bashed the Chevy Volt as a pointless science project that will never catch on in the real world. Since the Accord and other electrics built by competing automakers follow the same general path as the Volt, they deserve the same withering derision, right?

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Apparently not. The Volt, of course, has been the whipping boy for everybody opposed to the 2009 General Motors bailout, because it supposedly represents a politically motivated white elephant that will never pay for itself. Plus, GM still owes the U.S. government about $26 billion, which means that the Volt, like literally everything GM has produced since the bailout, a is "taxpayer-financed" project.

President Barack Obama gets behind the wheel of a Chevy Volt during his tour of the General Motors Auto Plant in Hamtramck, Mich., July 30, 2010.
President Barack Obama gets behind the wheel of a Chevy Volt during his tour of the General Motors Auto Plant in Hamtramck, Mich., July 30, 2010.

But if the Volt is a stupid idea, then most major automakers are following GM down the path of waste and ruin.

The Accord plug-in, as Honda points out, differs from the Volt in important technical ways. The Volt can run about 35 miles on a full electrical charge, before a gas-powered engine kicks in to help generate power. Since electricity costs about one-third as much as gasoline per mile, the Volt is optimized for commuters and other drivers who typically drive less than 40 miles per day and can recharge every night. But for those who routinely drive longer distances or can't park regularly next to an outlet, the Volt makes no sense, because it's not cost-efficient when the gas engine does most of the work. The Accord plug-in, by contrast, goes a mere 12 miles or so on a charge, then becomes a regular hybrid. It's less of a bargain for 40-mile commuters who might be able to run on electric power most of the time. But it's better than the Volt for longer trips and all-around use.

[READ: Do Volt Owners Deserve Flak for GM's Flubs?]

Still, there's no definitive standard yet for electrified vehicles, which are still a tiny niche of the car business and may never become mainstream. But most automakers think it's riskier to ignore electric vehicles than to invest in them, and they're taking a variety of different approaches. Toyota's Prius plug-in, introduced last year, is similar to the Accord, with an all-electric range of about 11 miles before it operates like a hybrid. Nissan's rechargeable Leaf has a range of up to 100 miles, but no gasoline backup.

Ford is spreading its bets: Its Focus electric is similar to the Leaf, with a range of about 75 miles and no gasoline backup, while the new C-Max Energi is a plug-in hybrid, like the Prius and Accord. BMW is developing all-electrics with a range of 100 miles or so, while borrowing straight from GM's Volt strategy by pointing out that "most Americans average less than 30 miles [of driving] in 24 hours."

With many other electrics following in the Volt's treadmarks, it's starting to seem strange that the Volt has drawn such unrelenting criticism. Contrary to what many critics believe, the Volt got its start several years before GM's bankruptcy, and the program was nearly complete by the time of the 2009 bailout. Before GM hit the skids, the Volt program earned praise from many auto enthusiasts, and it may have forced some competitors to invest in electric technology sooner than they would have otherwise.

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But the Volt's debut in 2010, in the aftermath of the GM bailout, created the false impression that the Obama administration — admittedly hot on all sorts of "green" technology that may never pan out — ordered GM to produce the battery-powered Volt as a condition of the bailout. (It typically takes five years or more for a new-vehicle program to go from concept to production.) It didn't help that GM overhyped the Volt, then failed to meet sales target of about 10,000 per year.

The Volt's starting price of about $40,000 (or roughly $33,000 after federal tax credits) also drew guffaws, since it doesn't have the luxury or sporty features of other cars in that price range, and won't save enough on fueling costs to justify the higher price for more than a decade. But the Volt's price does reflect the added cost of all the new technology in the vehicle, which is the same approach Honda and other manufacturers have taken in the pricing of their electric vehicles.

Meanwhile, those who have plunked down 40 large for a Volt seem happy with their purchase. For the second year in a row, the Volt came in first in Consumers Reports' owner-satisfaction survey, making it the most-loved car among 240 different models. Could all those critics possibly be wrong? Volt owners seem to think so, and many GM competitors do, too.

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