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Electric Dreams

August 27th, 2012 - 4:49 pm

General Motors has announced it is temporarily suspending production of the Chevy Volt. Drive On reports: “General Motors is halting, for a month, the manufacture of its well-known but seldom-sold Chevrolet Volt extended-range electric car, according to trade publication Automotive News.” It was the second shutdown this year. This may put the kibosh on the President’s well known intention to buy a Volt fresh off the line when he leaves the White House.

“I got to get inside a brand-new Chevy Volt fresh off the line,” he said, “Secret Service wouldn’t let me drive it, but I liked sitting in it, it was nice, I bet it drives real good.”

“And five years from now, when I’m not president anymore, I will buy one and drive it myself,” he said to the cheering crowd who chanted, “Four more years!”

Maybe they can restart the production line in 2016. The electric car has had rough sailing in the marketplace, even with government incentives to boost it. The administration wanted to get 1 million electric cars on the road by 2015 and was willing to help it along.

The White House intends to boost government subsidies for wealthy buyers of the Chevy Volt and other new-technology vehicles — to $10,000 per buyer.

That mammoth subsidy would cost taxpayers $100 million each year if it is approved by Congress, presuming only 10,000 new-technology autos are sold each year.

But the administration wants to get 1 million new-tech autos on the road by 2015. The subsidy cost of that goal could reach $10 billion.

The planned giveaway will likely prompt populist protests from GOP legislators, but it will likely also will be welcomed by auto-industry workers in the critical swing state of Michigan.

It’s a small price to pay for protecting the enironment. The President rejected accusations from political rivals that he was buying union votes. “Even by the standards of this town that’s a load of you know what,” he said.

Joe Nocera of the New York Times described the Volt as an “innovative electric car” whose prospects were sabotaged by Rush Limbaugh. “A month earlier, the Volt had been named European Car of the Year. It was coming off its best sales month yet, with some 2,200 cars sold. Its problems with the government — which conducted a severe rollover test that caused a Volt to catch fire — appeared to be over; the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration had given the Volt its highest crash-safety rating.” He attended an auto show at which the excitement was palpable.

Between bites of eggs and bacon, the Volt owners gushed about how well the car drove — and how much gasoline they were saving. They were early adopters, of course, willing to pay a high price ($40,000 before a $7,500 tax credit) to get their hands on a new technology. Many of them had become nearly obsessed with avoiding the gas station; for those with short commutes, it could be months between fill-ups.

But a shadowed dogged this sunny scene.

Yet there was also an undercurrent of nervousness at the breakfast. A reporter for Fox News had been prowling the auto show, asking nasty questions about the Volt. For months, the conservative propaganda machine — including Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, and Neil Cavuto, the Fox News business editor — had been mocking the Volt, and linking it to President Obama, who has long touted the promise of electric cars. Cavuto, who has called the Volt “roller skates with a plug,” was rumored to be going on the air that very night with yet another Volt hatchet job. …

In his regular blog at Forbes, Lutz has tried to counter what he has called the “rabid, sadly misinformed right.” But he has largely given up. The last straw came when his conservative intellectual hero, Charles Krauthammer, described the Volt as “flammable.” Krauthammer, Lutz felt, had to know better. Although he remains deeply conservative, Lutz told me that he has become disenchanted with the right’s willingness to spread lies to aid the cause.

At the breakfast I attended, many of the Volt owners wanted General Motors to fight back. But Chris Perry, a G.M. marketing executive, cautioned that that would only bring more attention to the Volt’s status as “a political punching bag.” He added, “We are looking at the long term, and we know this is going to pass.” Which it surely will — after November.

Patrick Michaels of Forbes, who called the Volt the “flagship of the government industrial complex” thinks the problem is that it is poor value for money. “Carrying a $41,000 base MSRP and a $7,500 tax break,  the Volt is either going to be the biggest bust since the Edsel, or a niche car with very modest sales.  It is not, repeat, not the wave of the future. It’s just too impractical for a large number of everyday drivers.” At one point it only sold 125 units in a month.

All the same if “after November” Obama wins, Chris Perry of GM is right to see sales at the end of tunnel. Obama will get his Chevy Volt in 2016. Count on it.


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