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