Green Update: The Volt’s Troubles *UPDATED
*UPDATE: Some House Republicans charged in a Wednesday hearing that NHTSA delayed investigating the Volt’s battery fire, basically to protect General Motors, the Volt’s reputation, and President Obama’s reelection campaign. Dan Akerson, GM’s chief, and David Strickland, NHTSA Administrator, bore the brunt of the contemptuous assertions of Darrell Issa, R-Cal., who typically holds hearings where there is always smoke but no fire. Akerson called the Volt entirely “safe, a marvelous machine,” and drove one to the hearing. He also said the car was not designed “to be a political punching bag, and, sadly, that is what it has become.”
We might as well say it out loud: The Chevy Volt has been a fiasco for GM.
Now dealers are refusing to take on more Volts, even though NHTSA has given the car a clean bill of health after investigating battery fires supposedly caused in side-impact crashes. Volts are no more prone to such fires than other cars.
Just as Volt sales were beginning to improve (slightly), somebody cried “Fire!” in a crowded theater, and that has really put the kibosh on sales. Once again, GM has had to backwater on its sales targets, now saying it will simply build as many cars as customers will buy.
The pace and frequency of anti-Volt stories has been picking up, as some find it a timely excuse to bash the Obama administration for backing the car in the first place. But the political problems with the Volt are fleabites; the real wounds were caused by GM’s complete failure in marketing the car.
The company put out ridiculous fuel economy claims at the beginning, then it backwatered. Its sales goals were wildly optimistic. The car cost too much. GM claimed its technology was totally unique, when it was in fact a plug-in hybrid variant. The Volt’s EPA ratings were disappointing. The car’s styling is bland. There was no proper campaign to educate the target audience. Problems with infrastructure and charging were not addressed.
Meanwhile, competitors were developing more fuel-efficient gasoline engines to power cars with as good or better performance at a lower price.
GM has once again become the world’s largest car-seller (over 9 million worldwide in 2011), yet it has sold fewer than 8,000 Volts over the life of the car (13 months). The company has a tremendous investment in the Volt—in both dollars and prestige—that it can ill afford to lose.
A recent article claims that since expensive ($40K-plus) hybrids are selling in low numbers—though it quotes only December 2011 figures—electrics and hybrids are the biggest failures ever for the auto biz. This is more “fire in the theater” baloney.
What you can say with confidence is that the public is growing less interested in buying plug-in cars—with strong interest down from 44 percent in 2010 to 40 percent in 2011. Which is not to say that their interest is gone forever.
Despite a lot of fumbles and setbacks, Fisker has done a remarkable job of keeping its Karma dealers and buyers. It is still on track to sell at least 5,000 cars in 2012. GM still needs to learn basic skills in customer management and educating potential Volt buyers. If those buyers don’t spread the gospel, who will? The Volt is not dead, but GM should be desperate to get it off life support.
Will the Volt come back in terms of sales? Why, or why not?