What's a poor Volt to do?


ith the 2012 New York International Auto Show in the news this week, Chevrolet is no doubt hoping that its Volt extended-range electric car—which has been in the news a lot over the past several months, for various reasons—will fade a bit from the media glare while at the same time enticing show-goers (particularly urban Manhattan-types and Brooklynites) into considering buying a Volt of their very own.

2012 Chevrolet Volt 2012 Chevrolet Volt

Why the duality? Well, on the one hand, the Volt has become a four-letter word among certain political partisans, and becoming a political football isn't the car's only problem. A handful of fires that happened after crash tests caught the public's attention, giving some buyers pause and giving the car's critics that much more ammo. On top of that, the Volt has divided car reviewers, some of whom love it, and some of whom think that it's a mediocre car overall, despite the new tech under the hood. Finally, even those who like the Volt would likely concede that the sticker price is a just a bit too high, even with government tax credits factored in.

But wait, there's more—not only have right-wing politicians taken shots at the Volt because of its extended-range electric technology, but these same pundits have also been relentlessly picking away at the car because it's a GM product, and the federal government's bailout of the automaker remains controversial, especially since President Obama's administration was the shepherd that oversaw the process, and Obama's presidency hasn't exactly been popular with the right-wing (not that other Democrats would likely fare much better in this divisive political environment).

So you have right-wingers picking on the car because it's powered mostly by an electric motor and is associated with GM, which was always a controversial company even before the bailout, thanks to its long history as one of Detroit's most dominant automakers (GM seems to dominate a lot of conversations concerning the Big Three), and you have auto journalists who are divided, and you have a slightly panicked public that also doesn't seem to understand the tech. What's a poor Volt to do?

Well, the car does nothing, since, after all, it's just a car. But GM did halt production for a while, since sales had slowed (UPDATE: Do to greatly increased sales, production has resumed). And the automaker is fighting back, as are auto journalists who like the car, like alternative powertrains, and/or have a partisan bone of their own to pick with certain conservative elements of the media.

We'll save our politics for the barroom, and we'll save our full thoughts on the car for a forthcoming review, but we can say that we think the whole flap is much ado about nothing, and a pretty darn interesting car sporting some pretty darn interesting tech is suffering because of it (this is the part where we clarify that neither GM nor the government is paying us. Take off the tinfoil hat).

If you want to judge the Volt on its merits, fine. We do, because that's our job. We review cars, and we call it like we see it, and we see the Volt as a fine car that does what it's supposed to, despite some flaws (most of which matter only to enthusiasts). We also see it as slightly (OK, maybe more than slightly) overpriced. But we do not see it as a tool being used by the "socialist" Obama Administration to drag us all kicking and screaming into electric cars, nor do we see it as a rolling fire hazard.

It's too bad that some people do see it that way, since the political fallout may overshadow the car's extended-range electric technology. The idea is simple, run on all-electric mode for as long as possible, then use gasoline to generate more charge for the battery. In the Volt's case, all-electric range is supposed to be about 40 miles (the company claims the average American drives that distance each day) before the switch to gas-assisted power. The electric motor drives the wheels (although the gas engine assists in certain circumstances), and the idea is that if you drive less than 40 miles each day and plug the car in each night, you won't need to use much gas. The other benefit that GM touts over all-electric vehicles is that drivers won't let so-called range anxiety stop them from making longer trips--the car will achieve 300 or more miles of combined range, and when it's out of fuel, one can just fill up at a regular gas station, like anyone else on the road.

There's no one person or entity to blame for the Volt's slow start. GM deserves some blame for overpricing the car and for not doing a better job of educating the decidedly non-tech-savvy public on how it works and what benefits it might provide. Politicians and pundits deserve blame for trashing the car without understanding how it works, getting basic facts wrong in the process (we'll hold our judgment on whether that's human error or a deliberate ignorance of the facts). American consumers get some blame, too, for still failing to embrace alternative powertrains, despite gas prices that sit well north of $4.

The Volt isn't a great car by truly objective measures, but then, neither is the Toyota Prius. Nor, for that matter, is the Nissan Leaf. What all three cars have in common is that they're innovative, and while the Leaf has skated under the radar so far, both the Prius and Volt have one more thing in common--they both generate lots of discussion.

All we know is that the last time we drove a Volt, we had it for a week and put plenty of miles on it, yet only spent $7 on gas, for one-and-a-half gallons. That's pretty impressive. It's too bad that when it comes to the Volt, fuel efficiency isn't the top story. The lead has been buried, and that's a shame.