Green Update: The Volt’s Troubles *UPDATED

Chevy Volt, front

*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.

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Used-Car Prices Rise Again, Should Go Even Higher

Buy used or hold on to the car you have?

If you’re in the market for a used car, it’s more important than ever to be prepared and do your research. Prices for used vehicles keep going up, which means the longer you wait to pull the trigger, the more you’ll pay.

That doesn’t mean you should buy a car if you don’t really need it. I have a friend, for instance, who owns a 2004 Honda Pilot with just over 100,000 miles on it. He owns it outright and told me he’s starting to think about trading it in for a newer model. To that I answered, “Why on Earth would you do that?”

The Pilot hasn’t given him an ounce of trouble and fits his young family perfectly, and his wife feels safe driving it in the snow. The only reason he could think of to upgrade is because he wants something newer. For some people, I guess, that’s plenty of reason to justify a new car payment. Heck, the car dealers bank on people like my friend, and if that’s how he wishes to spend his money, well, I can think of worse ways.

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Chrysler Is Gambling and Winning

We are consistently amazed by how well Chrysler/FIAT is doing. And its success demonstrates just what a gamble the auto biz is.

Yes, there have been problems with the FIAT 500‘s U.S. introduction, but they can be fixed. Chrysler needs to get its minivan market share back. Alfa Romeo’s reintroduction to the U.S. (Giulietta above) keeps getting delayed, but CEO Marchionne maintains it will happen. He is supposed to be a “world-class poker player.”

In fact, the biggest problem for the company is not Chrysler but FIAT’s ability to do business in Europe’s dismal economy. It’s likely that the alliance of the two firms, which is going very well, may well end up pulling FIAT out of the doldrums—and maybe to the U.S. if things get worse in Italy. If that happens, the Italians may string up Marchionne like they did Mussolini.

The Jeep brand typifies the group’s success, but new cars are coming from all directions:

The new vehicles coming in 2013 include new midsize sedans to replace the Chrysler 200 and Dodge Avenger and new versions of the Compass and Liberty. They’ll be based on the platform that underpins the Dart and built in Toledo.

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LEDs: Lights of the Future or Just Another Driving Distraction?

The image that started the LED revolution

Audi changed the automotive world.

It didn’t do it with a revolutionary new engine or by using a new lighter-than-steel chassis. It did it with light. A glaring, menacing light that etched its way into our psyches after emerging from a darkened room on an Audi R8.

From the instant those LED strips lit up, the personality of Audi changed forever. It took on a new cool arrogance while spawning imitations from almost all other automakers. The swoopy LEDs make an approaching Audi instantly recognizable, but not everyone is a fan of the bright automotive bling.

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Electronics Are Hijacking Our Cars

Audi A3 with Google Earth integration

In the old days (maybe five years ago), one of the horrors you’d see on the road was a driver fumbling to unfold his map while buzzing through traffic. Now, he looks at his GPS, which conveys much more (and more accurate) information while buzzing through traffic.

But it’s the same pressure to know where you’re going before you get there, and the driver still takes his eyes and attention off the road.

Audi now gives him all the detail and distraction of Google Earth (see above); Mercedes-Benz gives him “Facebook, Yelp, a news reader, Morningstar Finance, Google search, Google Street View, and Panoramio.” We note that “many” (why not all?) of the Benz apps are blocked while the car is moving.

CNET tells us that this year’s Consumer Electronics Show was in large part a venue for automakers to display their newest screens, apps and dashboard glitz—most designed to bring all the junk on your phone into the car. The so-called connected car is gaining “incredible momentum.”

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Chevrolet Corvette C7 Seen Testing in the Snow

Probably not the next Corvette

This frozen Friday just got a little more fun.

Speculation regarding the next Corvette has run the gamut, from the car evolving to a midengine supercar to the rebirth of the famous split-window Stingray. Yes, there are high hopes for the next ‘Vette.

The odds are pretty good that Chevy won’t surprise us with a midengine car. But we could see a small-displacement turbocharged V8 under the hood, in addition to a few other V8 options. Whatever Chevy offers, we can be sure it’ll be amazing and can’t wait to see the improvements on the already superior Z06 and ZR1 variations.

Until now, the design of the C7 Corvette has been a complete mystery. It still is, mostly, but the first spy shots, courtesy of the good folks at KGP Photography, of the anticipated and elusive halo car have emerged. The pictures show a vinyl-clad beast clawing through the snow with familiar black-white camo bits poking out from under the vinyl armor.

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FIAT’s Problems with the 500

FIAT 500 Abarth

First, the company was “naive,” as CEO Sergio Marchionne has admitted, in setting a first-year sales goal of 50,000 FIAT 500s. Big mistake, and utter hubris to think the company could beat MINI its first year out. Still, nearly 20,000 were sold—no mean accomplishment.

The second big error was to push its dealers to set up separate, FIAT-only showrooms to make the car more exclusive than it should be. And then fail to give them support.

Error number three was not the J-Lo ad campaign that everyone is so quick to criticize, but the positioning of the car as something cute, customizable and upscalable (i.e., the Gucci version). See the newest Abarth ad after the break.

So the company got mired in the perception of the 500 as a girly car—because most American males think that anything small, cleverly designed and fun to drive is a chickmobile. Old habits die hard.

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Cars Coming Soon: Scion iQ a Great Punchline, an Odd Car

“Where’s the rest of it?”

“Where do you park that thing, on your pool table at home?”

“Hey man, isn’t that Barbie’s car?”

Drive in a Scion iQ and you can be sure you’ll hear jokes like these multiple times per day, each comedian thinking he is the only one to ever loft such creative barbs at the diminutive car and its embarrassed driver.

Yes, the iQ is incredibly small. It actually would fit on a pool table. Barbie though, could never drive it because inside, everything is full-size. The windshield, seats and side windows might as well be from a Corolla, which makes driving the iQ seem like a perfectly respectable thing to do. It *feels* normal. But it’s not.

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Industry Optimistic, While U.S. Drivers Keep Cars Longer

Volkswagen assembly line

After some pretty disastrous years, the auto industry is crowing with expectations of growth in 2012. Sales are up, and thousands of jobs are reportedly in the offing.

At the same time, a just-published analysis by Polk reveals that U.S. drivers are keeping their cars longer and longer. The average age for cars and light trucks is now 10.8 years.

Is there some contradiction here? Not really, since neither Polk nor the automakers expect the trend of driving older, high-mileage cars to continue rising. That is, a lot of pent-up demand for new cars has been building since 2008.

Another factor driving new-car sales is an improved product. The industry is making some of its best (and longest-lasting) products ever, cars like the 2013 Ford Fusion.

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Pathfinder Follows Explorer’s Lead, Ditches Truck Frame… 4Runner Next?

The Nissan Pathfinder Concept, set to replace the current Pathfinder, might be better suited with a new name. I’m thinking something like the Nissan Paved-Road-Finder or Nissan Open-Road-Highway-Finder.

The current vehicle uses a truck frame and has earned its moniker as a path-finder, because it can easily traverse off road and discover untrodden paths to undiscovered locations. The concept follows the lead set by the new Ford Explorer and uses a unibody  frame for better fuel economy, which may only lead to drivers finding previously undiscovered Costco locations.

Is this an example of how the mighty have fallen, or just a natural evolution into a new future? We still have the Toyota 4Runner and Chevrolet Tahoe as truck-based SUVs, but how long before they succumb to the lure of the unibody?

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