One of the last sounds Dave Muse probably expected to hear as he drove his Chevrolet Volt past the massive crowd at the Woodward Avenue Dream Cruise in Detroit was the sound of people booing. But there were indeed catcalls for his car, although it was Detroit-built and one of the most technically advanced and highly acclaimed vehicles ever to come from that city.
To be sure, there were also plenty of cheers for the Volt from the crowd, which annually numbers more than 1 million. But the undercurrent of condemnation was clear.
It was clearer still for Muse when a stranger approached him in a parking lot, "complaining loudly about my choice of transportation," he says. As Muse attempted to exit the Volt, the stranger pushed his car door closed, forcing him back into the driver seat, and then stormed off.
During a polarizing election year, the plug-in hybrid Chevrolet Volt has become an unexpected focal point, touted by supporters of President Obama as a shining symbol of a resurgent American auto industry and a model choice for climate-conscious drivers. At the same time, it's been painted by right-wing pundits as an icon of big government excesses, a sentiment that officially entered the presidential race when Republican candidate Herman Cain proclaimed the car "Obama's baby" and alleged the President is "subsidizing the sale of every Volt to the tune of $7,500 in taxpayer money." The right-leaning Drudge Report recently highlighted an Edmunds/Inside Line news story on the Volt's involvement in a Texas "smart home" project as an example of wasteful government spending. The story drew more than 200 comments, many of them politically charged.
Volt owners like Muse are finding themselves caught in such crossfire. Some have reported acts of vandalism — tires slashed, expletives on the windshield — and one even found himself being intentionally run off the road. General Motors spokesperson Michelle Malcho says she is not familiar with these stories, but notes that "the car isn't political" and urges people to drive one before making strong judgments against it.
Confronted With "Political Bigotry"
Scott Leapman, a self-proclaimed gadget geek from Deerfield Beach, Florida, has been driving his 2013 Volt (nickname "Faraday") for only a few months but has already had an encounter. Stopped at an intersection on his commute home, he noticed the driver of the pickup beside him rolling down the window. Leapman turned, and the pickup driver asked, "How do you like MY car?" while gesturing to the Volt. Leapman stared back a moment. "Your car?" he wondered. "Yeah," the pickup driver replied. "My taxes paid for it!" Then the light changed and the pickup sped away.
Most confrontations are milder. Muse, for instance, says he gets into "plenty of [sometimes heated] discussions with relatives at family events."
"Pretty much all of the Volt's critics are people who have never been near one," Muse says. He sees it as his mission to change minds when he can and has grown adept at parrying most of the anti-Volt talking points. For instance, he notes that a production prototype of the car was completed well before President Obama was elected and that it was actually former President Bush who signed the $7,500 EV tax credit into law.
"I like to point out that more fuel choices in the market can only be a good thing," he says. "A popular electric car, or other alt-fuel car, would put competitive pressure on gasoline providers to keep prices down...so everyone benefits, even if you never want to drive an electric car."
"My mother-in-law's first reaction [to the Volt] was to prohibit me from plugging it in at her house. But she has come around," he says.
Likewise, Leapman believes that "anyone who knows the truth about the car...is completely onboard with the Volt" and that negative attitudes are driven by "pure ignorance and political bigotry."
An Eclectic Group of Owners
Volt owners themselves appear to be an eclectic bunch, hardly like the stereotypes one might imagine from rhetoric on either side of the political campaign. According to Edmunds.com data, Volts are well represented in each of the 50 states as well as the District of Columbia, and while Obama-leaning California has the highest share of Volts relative to overall registrations, also near the top of the list are swing states like Colorado and Iowa.
Similarly, you may very well guess that the eco-friendly Toyota Prius has been the model most often traded in for a Volt this year, but it might surprise you to learn that the next two models on that list are the BMW 3 Series, a sporty European car, and the Chevrolet Silverado, a full-size pickup.
An informal poll on Volt enthusiast site GM-Volt.com shows the audience there almost evenly split between folks on the left and right sides of the political spectrum, underscoring the fact that the car's attributes appeal to a wide range of people.
If there's one thing Volt owners have in common, it's their love of the car itself.
"I was at a stoplight next to another Volt driver, and we both rolled our windows down and chatted for a few seconds about how much we love our cars and what our mileage was," says Leapman.
More Curiosity Than Confrontation
Most Volt owners, like Earl Weinstein from Los Angeles, report that strangers who approach about the car are more likely to be curious than confrontational. "When I was parked at Helen's bike shop in Santa Monica to buy a new bike rack a few weeks ago," he relates, "at least three people came up to me to ask about it, one of whom had just leased a new Prius and started to regret his choice after I described how awesome the Volt is."
Muse, who lives near Detroit, says, "I also get people who come up to me telling me that they worked on the Volt at GM, and want to know how I like it." He tells them, "It's easily the most fun car I've ever driven and worth every penny I've spent on it."
With the long election season now over, can Volt owners expect its politicization to subside? "I'm hoping to see the issue fade into the background," Muse says. "[The] Volt will eventually be accepted as well as any other hybrid is today."
Leapman also hopes that the Volt-bashing will stop. "Maybe everyone will realize just how great an American car it is," he says.