2011 Chevrolet Volt – Click above for high-res image gallery

A lot of ink is being spilled over the Chevrolet Volt. There are arguments over whether it is worth even the $33,500 it costs after the Federal tax credit kicks in, or the $350.00 per month lease price (after $2,500 downpayment). There are debates over its real fuel economy, and range. There are debates about whether any vehicle should get a $7,500 rebate to make it decently affordable. The market should decide, the argument goes.

What most of the arguments over the Volt don't take into consideration is what I call "The Vision Thing."
We know the market will decide in the end. Even as the federal government has imposed "Corporate Average Fuel Economy" rules in the hopes of forcing manufacturers to make more fuel efficient vehicles, new vehicle sales show that consumers in the U.S. still like their pickups and SUVs.

What most of the arguments over the Volt don't take into consideration is what I call "The Vision Thing."

General Motors board member Steve Girsky, who is a former Wall Street analyst and consigliere to the United Auto Workers, says he has been a voice arguing inside the automaker to make a greater commitment to Volt and extended-range electrics. He also says that CEO Daniel Akerson is another voice pushing for the vehicle and technology despite its high cost.

"GM hasn't had a leadership vehicle like this in a long time. And Ackerson is insistent that we have that," says Girsky.

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Girsky says there are a lot of voices inside GM arguing over how many Volts – or other extended range vehicles – the automaker should commit to. "There is a lot of hand-wringing about whether it should be 60,000 or 120,000, and what if we do this, and what if we do that," said Girsky in a candid exchange at GM's annual holiday gathering with the media on Thursday night. "You can talk yourself out of anything that way," he said. "But all that doesn't take into account the need to have a vision and lead."

Girsky threw in his claim that his wife is getting 98 miles per gallon with her Volt.
Girsky threw in his claim that his wife is getting 98 miles per gallon with her Volt.

Girsky further maintains that there is no question that the technology has to be extended to other models in order to increase volume and ultimately bring down the costs.

The Chevrolet Volt is a finalist for North American Car of the Year, and it was awarded Green Car of the Year at the Los Angeles Auto Show last month.

The Volt is the first extended-range electric vehicle to be sold by a major automaker in large numbers. It gets up to 40 miles on a charge, depending on how the car is driven. When the battery runs down, a gas engine kicks in to power the battery until it can be recharged. Volt users are finding they can recharge a battery in about eight hours on a regular 110-volt household outlet.

The car offers about as much room as a Toyota Corolla, which costs about $19,500 fully optioned. And the Toyota gets a respectable 28/35 fuel economy score. The payback, then, of the Volt, in terms of how much gas you buy, is hard to justify when gas is still hovering around $3.00 a gallon.

2011 Chevrolet Volt drive mode button2011 Chevrolet Volt power button

But what all the debates leave out is the discussion about GM's right to take a leadership position on a new way to drive, and the unknown number of consumers who may also want to take a leadership position in their neighborhoods and workplaces.

I know it sounds corny, but Volt buyers are going to push the envelope to prove to themselves and their friends that electric driving is feasible. They will charge up overnight when electricity is cheapest. They will seek out places to recharge at work, the mall, parking lots. They will likely show loyalty to retailers that offer, for public relations benefits, a place to plug a car in while customers shop.

I feel sorry for Volt buyers who will be full-time explainers for the foreseeable future. But that's what they signed up for.
Early adopters of the Chevy Volt will undoubtedly try to maximize their electric driving, though they will do so without range anxiety (the fear of running out of juice). They will post to their Facebook pages, talk about it at neighborhood parties and backyard barbecues the way people have talked about their all-wheel-drive experiences plowing through snowstorms in their Subaru.

As the owner of a Volkswagen Jetta TDI, I can attest that I can find myself being a walking explainer and ambassador for clean diesel. "But you can't find it everywhere, right?" Argh. Of course, you can, I say. I have never run out of fuel, and I never will. I feel sorry for Volt buyers who will be full-time explainers for the foreseeable future. But that's what they signed up for.

2011 Chevrolet Volt engine

Now, the discussion is about extended-range electrics. Soon, discussion about the feasibility of natural gas vehicles will heat up, I predict. Replacing 3.5 million medium and heavy vehicles with natural gas vehicles by 2035 would keep the U.S. from importing about 1.2 million barrels of day, or more than is currently being imported from Saudi Arabia daily, according to a report by the Center for American Progress.

Payback on investments toward increasing electric and natural gas driving may be hard to justify at the moment. And they may not excite the boosters of horsepower. But there is a vocal minority in the country that would like the opportunity to make the case in the next decade that getting off foreign oil is a good thing for our country.

Tax credits and other incentives to bring start-up costs down make sense because the government is an interested party. After all, if the U.S. didn't need Middle East oil, far fewer combat service members would be needed.


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Photos copyright ©2010 Chris Paukert / AOL

David Kiley, an award winning journalist, covers the auto industry from Ann Arbor, MI. He has followed the industry for 25 years, and held posts including Detroit Bureau Chief for USA Today and senior correspondent for BusinessWeek. He is also the author of two books on the industry: Getting The Bugs Out: The Rise, Fall and Comeback of Volkswagen in America [John Wiley and Sons 2001], and Driven: Inside BMW, The Most Admired Car Company in the World [Wiley, 2004].