2011 Chevy Volt: Thoughts from the Curb
January 25, 2012
At the risk of being punny, the Chevy Volt is a lightning rod -- for conversation, for controversy, for confusion and for grand-standing wind bags. From its concept's unveiling at the 2007 Detroit Auto Show to today, no car has come remotely close to garnering as much attention, especially outside the little car world in which we inhabit.
This past Saturday I went to a friend's backyard barbecue, where my car for the weekend certainly did not go unnoticed (I mean, look where I parked it). The usual questions and misconceptions we've encountered over the course of the year popped up, plus a few new ones. I was only too happy to oblige with my usual scattered helping of thoughts.
"Gas engine? Wait, I thought it was electric." No, it's better than electric. If it was electric, I wouldn't have been able to drive it here, or I would be trying to bum electricity as we speak. There's something so chintzy and undignified about that.
"So what do you think about it?" I like it a lot, there's a reason I've driven it so much this year. There's something really cool about an electric motor -- it's quiet, there's no vibration and it's all torque, so it really plants you in your seat. It feels so very effortless. But I also like how it drives beyond that. It feels really substantial. It's more expensive than a Prius (I add once the guy with the Prius leaves the room), but it should be, it's better in about every possible way.
"How expensive is it?" Yeah, so that's definitely a problem. That one out there tops $44,000, which is about $10,000 more than the all-electric Nissan Leaf. I think the Volt should be more expensive -- it's nicer inside, I can actually drive it down here to Orange County -- but not 10 grand more. Now, the company did get a $7,500 government tax rebate for buying it, which brings the price down to what it probably should be. But the Leaf can get the same rebate, and besides, I don't think the government should be handing out money to people to buy any car. There are a lot of cars out there -- especially luxury ones -- that aren't worth their high prices. BMW doesn't ask the government to help move Z4s. Either you make a product people are willing to pay for or you don't. I think GM has, it's just that it apparently can't make the Volt cheap enough yet. Really, the high price is the reason people aren't buying it.
"So it's not selling well?" No, it's not, but I'm not really surprised by that. (As Edmunds Vice-Chairman Jeremy Anwyl wrote yesterday), the Volt was not intended to be some profit-making, volume product. It wasn't supposed to be another Malibu. Let's not forget that no one thought the Prius would blow up as it did; no one anticipated it becoming trendy. I mean, remember the original Prius? Of course you don't, you don't know anyone who lives in a yurt and wears clothing exclusively made out of hemp.
Where was I? Oh yeah, why they built the Volt. It was to be a test bed for new technology, not unlike a Mercedes-Benz S-Class or some other high-end car with a silly price that inspires future innovation within the company and provides good PR for a company that "killed the electric car" and that was watching Toyota getting all the glory with the Prius. The Volt isn't really about the Volt. It's about a powertrain concept that can trickle down to the next next Malibu, or other cars (or even copied by other manufacturers). It's a concept that will be refined in the next Volt and the next Volt after that. If those future cars have a tiny two-person back seat, only get 30-something mpg from their gas engine, and cost grossly too much, I'd be shocked.
"Wait, are you guys talking about the Volt? Aren't they catching on fire? Should I be worried about my lawn?" Sure, if I were to crash the Volt into your light pole out there then flip it 360 degrees, then park it in your garage for three weeks, yes, the battery might burst into flames. That scenario happens all the time, but yes, it cought on fire. Chevy's fixed the problem and the government has closed the case. There's a lot of grand-standing going on, with wind bags in Congress saying NHTSA covered it up because of the government's stake in GM and then going so far as saying the Volt was built because the government told them to do it. This is obviously crap given the Volt was first shown back in 2007, and no doubt thought up long before that. Damn those facts. The delay does seem odd, but really, god forbid an agency take time to do a thorough investigation before pressing the panic button on something that wasn't experienced in the real world. This wasn't a Ford Pinto situation we're talking about.
"Dude, I want a drag race between the Volt and his Prius." Sure, but the Volt would wipe the floor with it.
"Damn, he's throwing it down."
I'm not, I just know their 0-60 times (9 seconds versus 10.1). The Volt's quicker.
(Not) Sadly, that particular event was shelved when the girls started playing Just Dance 3 on Wii. The Chevy Volt may get more attention than any other car over the past 5 years, but it simply can't compete with women jumping up and down.
James Riswick, Automotive Editor @ 14,545 miles