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Plugged In

Plugged In


Can General Motors' innovative electric car -- coming to you as early as 2010 -- live up to the hype? Sean Kennedy looks under the hood of the Chevy Volt.

Auto industry icon Bob Lutz says the Chevy Volt will "go down in history as a true game-changer." General Motors' vice chairman isn't just waxing enthusiastic -- he's telling us what we want to hear. At least Lutz's statements were a hit with the 300-strong audience who came to the inaugural Volt Nation event at the New York International Auto Show this March.

Organized by Volt-obsessed New York blogger Lyle Dennis, who has as many as 100,000 visitors a month to his site, Volt Nation was billed as a town hall meeting of fellow enthusiasts and GM executives, including the imposing Lutz. But the dozens of gawkers, journalists, and cameramen with klieg lights in hand crammed around the car and dais made the event feel more like an in-store appearance with Amy Winehouse -- complete with fans shouting praise like "This is the most exciting car I have ever heard about!"

Indeed, the sleek, eco-friendly Volt has garnered over-the-top praise ever since it debuted as a concept car January 2007 at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. It's designed as an "extended-range" electric vehicle that, after charging its battery pack overnight via a standard wall outlet, can be driven up to 40 miles powered by electricity alone. That's just about the maximum distance 78% of Americans drive in a given day, according to a 2003 U.S. Bureau of Transportation survey. For drivers traveling beyond that range, a gas generator kicks in to power the electric motor. In that scenario the Volt will get around 50 miles per gallon, compared to 46 mpg for the Toyota Prius, the Japanese automaker's existing game-changer.

So people who drive locally to and from work, maybe stopping by the grocery store for some organic milk and whole-grain bread on their way home, will never use gas driving the Volt. I could drive from one tip of Manhattan to the other -- 13.4 miles in total -- nearly three times and be ecologically guilt-free. Unlike today's hybrid vehicles, which require gas during acceleration and at high speeds -- and therefore produce emissions -- the extended-range electric Volt will almost never spit any noxious chemicals into the air.

The earliest the Volt will roll out is 2010, even though GM is concentrating all its muscle to bring the car to market. "We have hundreds of engineers working on it across the company," Frank Weber, the top executive for the project, said at Volt Nation. "It is the highest-priority project General Motors currently has." No wonder. The car has been touted as the solution to America's dependence on foreign oil, a panacea for the ailing domestic auto industry, and as Lutz puts it, a way of "kicking Toyota in the teeth." Global sales of that much-admired company eclipsed those of long-dominant GM last year for the first time ever; having missed the chance to go to market first with a hybrid, GM hopes the Volt will steal Toyota's crown of innovation.

"This will be a whole new driving experience," Volt chief engineer Tony Posawatz boldly tells me on a visit to the GM Heritage Center near Detroit. Since development plans were announced last year, the Volt has been constantly on tour; three days after my visit, the prototype appeared at the Grammys.

Despite all the talk, the Volt is still just a car -- although perhaps in the way that the iPod is just an MP3 player. In addition to the beguiling silence you get driving a hybrid, Posawatz points to the "wonderful interface" the Volt team has in mind for the console, which he compares to a smart phone or PDA. "When you push the start button," he suggests, "you'll get signals and feedback to set up the car" exactly to your specifications. Plus the car just looks good. "We want to avoid the sensible-shoe syndrome," says Bob Boniface, the Volt's head designer.

Of course, there are caveats about this wonder car. For one thing, any reduction in carbon footprint by not using gas would almost certainly be offset by plugging the Volt in overnight -- unless you live in one of the few areas where wind- or solar-powered electricity is available. As for actually plugging the Volt in, even Posawatz acknowledges that it may require a more heavy-duty electrical outlet than most consumers have at home. Another concern is the battery itself: "Thermal management," as anyone associated with the Volt will tell you, is a big challenge. And when the battery dies, will there be a recycling program to dispose of it? Posawatz says that, after an estimated 10 years' use in the car, the Volt's lithium ion battery will have a second life, "storing backup or off-peak energy from commercial or utility operations," and then will be recycled "much like other electronic devices."

Such questions only up the ante for GM. The company expects the Volt to be a volume player -- it's a Chevy, after all -- in markets around the world. And while the sticker price is far from determined -- estimates so far have varied from $30,000 to $48,000 -- Chevrolet general manager Ed Peper has said it will be low enough to be a "great value in every sector [where] we compete." Although not, it seems, low enough to compete with the Prius's $21,100 MSRP.

"We need to do this right," says Posawatz. "Consumers won't give us another chance." If the Volt disappoints once drivers are behind the wheel, the consequences for the American automaker could be dire. GM suffered a $38.7 billion loss in 2007, the worst in company--and automotive--history (albeit due largely to a tax-related write-down), and any number of factors could influence the global market before the Volt's production model rolls out. Any misfire and the Volt, instead of changing the alternative-fuel game, will have lost it.

But GM has decided it's worth the risk. "It may be years before we make a dime on this car -- years!" Lutz said at Volt Nation, signaling a sea change in thinking at the company. The board's response? " 'Hey, don't even talk about profitability. General Motors needs this car.' "

If it works, the payoff could be huge. The Volt, said Lutz, "could potentially be the equivalent of the Model T -- the last American car that was exported widely around the world."

Only time will tell if he and America's teetering automotive giant are right.

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Sean Kennedy