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.

On November 28, GM North American President Mark Reuss announced that Chevrolet would provide conventionally powered loaner vehicles for Volt customers. But on December 1, GM CEO Dan Akerson upped the ante and announced that GM would buy back any Volt whose owner was concerned about spontaneously combusting. Ackerson also said:

We want to assure the safety of our customers, of our buyers, and so we're just going to take a time out, if you will, in terms of redesigning the battery possibly.

Unsurprisingly, the European introduction of the Volt has been "delayed," which reasonable, flammable people might expect of a vehicle that can spontaneously combust without warning.

Like so much of the "product" output of the Obama administration, the Volt is full of features that any rational being -- or rational manufacturer -- would consider fatal bugs. Consider:

(1) Even with a $7,500 government (taxpayer) tax subsidy, the average Volt still costs about $33,500, not including fast charger ($2,000). It's easily possible to buy two well-equipped compact cars for that price that get mileage equal to the Volt

(2) At about the time initial owners would be trading in their Volts, they'd have virtually no resale value. Who would buy a used Volt knowing they'd have to spend around $10,000 any day to replace the battery pack? This factor alone would certainly obliterate Volt resale value and any dealer accepting a Volt on trade would be taking a major loss, which would almost certainly turn the Volt into the first "no deposit, no return" car.

(3) Mathematics is not on the Volt's side. Even if one assumes the Volt manages 100 MPG, on initial purchase price alone it is impossible to break even on gas expenditures over the cost difference between a Volt and any other high mileage, conventionally powered subcompact/compact car. The Volt simply makes no fiscal sense whatever for most Americans.

(4) While GM is neither confirming nor denying, GM is probably not making a cent manufacturing the Volt. One of their spokesmen really did call the Volt a "loss leader," which is nearly as remarkable -- and bizarre- -- as Mr. Obama's obvious pride in "leading from behind." Now that GM will at the least have to redesign, recall, and replace every Volt battery, it is more obvious than ever that the Volt is not an exercise in capitalism, but in green political wish making.

The Volt remains what it has been before the first one left the factory: an engineering exercise with not-ready-for-prime-time technology escaped from the lab, and yet another horribly costly epic failure propelled by taxpayer money into the Obama administration's bottomless borrowed-money pit of green energy debacles.

(Also see Seaton Motley's Tatler post, "Chevy Volt Costs Taxpayers Up to $250,000 Per Sale")