The Follies and Foibles of the Chevy Volt

I first wrote about the fast-failing fortunes of the Chevy Volt for PJ Media on April 21. Since then, despite bizarrely optimistic GM and Obama administration spin, the Volt appears destined to go the way of the Edsel and other epic automotive failures, despite Mr. Obama's recent claim to have saved the auto industry. If the Volt is a harbinger of salvation, the industry might be wishing Mr. Obama didn't bother.

The Volt is a very heavy, needlessly complex compact hybrid with a battery range of  25-50 miles. Many misconceptions about its drive mechanisms are still floating about -- apparently abetted by GM -- but the fact remains that when the Volt's battery-only range is exhausted, its weak onboard gasoline engine, which requires premium fuel, directly drives the vehicle. A full battery recharge takes up to 12 hours on 110 volt house current, but about five hours with a special, high voltage charger, an option available at only $2000, not including installation. All this for around $41,000 minus a federal tax credit of $7,500.

Having sold only about 6,000 Volts, GM has been trotting out some rather confusing public relations blurbs:

[Volt] Production was only ramped up to full speed in early September and now stands at a rate of 150 vehicles per day. Many of the 2,367 cars produced during the month are still in transit to dealers and buyers and, as of today, there are only 884 cars in the pipeline that are available for retail sale.

[GM] Spokesman Chris Lee says GM still will add 300 workers at the Detroit-Hamtramck plant — but not a second shift — by the end of this year to make more Volts.

A production rate of 150 Volts per day equals 54,750 Volts per year, yet GM is selling only a fraction of that. It seems that the demographic of buyers ready to snap up a Volt at any price to enhance their green street cred, or simply to add the latest technological toy to their collections, has been exhausted.

Sales are stalled far below GM's optimistic projection of 10,000 U.S. and 60,000 European sales in the Volt's first year. The 12,000 Volts General Electric promised to buy, as well as a non-specific number of Volts Mr. Obama promised to buy, have apparently not, as yet, materialized, despite rare sightings of Volts with government plates. Volt sales have essentially stalled, a fact even GM has been forced to admit because of the unfortunate tendency of the Volt's $10,000 (GM has suggested replacement costs as low as $8,000) battery pack to more or less spontaneously combust.

The fun began in June when the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) conducted Volt crash testing. Three weeks later, a damaged Volt's battery spontaneously combusted, touching off several nearby fires. Several congressmen, including Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), recently sent a letter to NHTSA Administrator David Strickland demanding to know why the NHTSA kept this under wraps until a second test in November produced the same results. Only then did the NHTSA make public the problem and launch a "formal safety defect investigation." The NHTSA has conducted at least three more tests on Volt battery packs, each with pyrotechnic results that set GM spinmeisters rotating at warp speed, so fast they've had difficulty keeping their stories straight.