Saturday, September 20, 2008

What's a Chevrolet Volt?

Chevrolet introduced a concept car called the Volt at the 2007 Detroit Auto Show. If you're not a car geek, you may not be familiar with the fact that concept cars are often wildly impractical futurist visions of what a company might do if the laws of physics were repealed... you may have noticed that we still don't have the flying cars promised to us in the '50s, never mind the nuclear reactors in the trunk to power our cars for decades on a single refueling. The Volt Concept was racy-looking, impractically-packaged (for a mainstream consumer car) and described as a series hybrid, specifically GM's E-Flex Extended-Range Electric Vehicle (EREV) system.

If you take a moment to look at that picture, it becomes apparent that the design compromises outward visibility, and if you're seen video or stills of people near the concept, it's not packaged well to be comfortable for 4 people. Never mind the fact that the concept car has a golf-cart powertrain to let it move under its own power, it wouldn't be a practical everyday car even if it had the final production E-Flex powertrain.

Now, a couple of weeks ago GM started leaking pictures of what is to be a production version of the car. Last week that had an official reveal of the production look of the car. The fact that there is to be a production version at all speaks of the upheaval at SUV Central GM Headquarters over the state of the car market today. Americans have realized that it's not really necessary for one person driving to their white-collar job to drive a vehicle that weighs 6000 lb and has seating for 8, and they've abruptly stopped borrowing against their houses to buy one, so there are Tahoes and Suburbans languishing on dealer lots everywhere.

In a shocking break with recent tradition, GM is planning to offer to the public a vehicle that's more efficient than the current Toyota Prius. A vehicle that will let you drive about 40 miles per day without needing any gasoline at all, and if you need to drive farther than that before you have a chance to plug in and charge it for a few hours, the "extended range" part of the powertrain kicks in and the car will take you as far as you want as long as there are gas stations every 300 miles or so. This is a game-changing powertrain, even if it's not an atomic car. The car that will be produced, as usual, is very much toned down from the show car that has to look good on a turntable but doesn't have to be a good car to drive.

It won't be out for a while (GM is saying late 2010) and there's conflicting info about what it will cost, what tax incentives will be in place at the time, etc. Bob Lutz, Vice Chairman of GM, wanders around with random quotes rattling out of his head and generally contradicts official statements, engineers in interviews and whatever he said last month. He was on Colbert last week and didn't really help the car any, but his interview will be largely forgotten by the time the car's in dealer showrooms.

I am amazed at the number of people who are up in arms over the fact that the production model doesn't look just like the concept car. They stupidly throw out epithets not supported by facts like "Electric Malibu!" and "Hybrid Cavalier" and "bait and switch" and claim they don't want one because it doesn't look exactly like the concept that most of them have ONLY SEEN IN PICTURES. It's a different size and platform than the Malibu (it's slightly smaller than a new Malibu) and obviously has nothing to do with the Cavalier that has been out of production for years. It's larger than the concept and has much more passenger and cargo space, and has significantly less aerodynamic drag, but the mouth-breathing hordes are screaming that GM is cheating them by producing a practical car instead of giving them the show car they got all excited about.

I've posted many times in several threads on this topic that GM needs this car to be a success, and the Camry is a much bigger success than the Solstice, or even the Miata. Bland sells. In the case of the Camry, bland sells like free nickel beer. Once GM proves the technology and turns its finances around, it can be used in many other vehicles and they can produce shorter-range, less-efficient cars for the form-over-function types, but any fool can see that people buying family cars buy lots of 4-cylinder Camrys and Accords and Fusions and Malibus because they make sense, not because they make them horny.

I also included a "tinfoil hat" tag because there's a cadre of people following the Volt's development who claim that we should all be driving around in an EV1 and GM and the oil companies want us to be dependent on oil forever and the Volt isn't nearly as good as the EV1 and GM killed the electric car and on and ON. They can't see that this 4-seater car with decent cargo room, a production-ready chassis and essentially UNLIMITED range is better for most consumers (even with its more limited all-electric range) than a hand-built extremely lightweight 2-seater experiment that was never made available to drivers in harsh climates and required a long charging cycle with a non-standard inductive charging paddle when it reached the end of its range in 80 miles or so.


Howard said...

Does free beer actually "sell"?

The atlantic had a good article on it last month. While lots sounds interesting, this is definitely not something I want the first model year of.

DKB said...

Further evidence that common parlance does not necessarily follow common sense... Does "nickel beer" work better? (I changed it to that anyway.) I've occasionally thought about that distinction, but don't obsess about it like I do when people say "I could care less..."

Richard said...

My father, God bless him, had a habit of buying the first year model of many GM Cadillacs. That meant we knew exactly what would be improved and fixed in the next year's models.

I am excited about the Volt because it is supposed to be a plug in. It seems they downplay the fact that the car will actually need gas to run as well. I am disappointed in the time delay in the Volt being available, or I wish my Prius was a plug in hybrid.

As to sexy cars, I exchanged 9 years of three different Saab convertibles for my Prius. I will never get my sexy back. But wth the practical Prius, it is a pleasant surprise to be able to carry boxes in the fold down back, and to be able to drive my parents around in the back seat without later needing the jaws of life to remove them. Practical cars are probably best and better sellers for the mass market, it is the maturity to buy them that is painful.

DKB said...

Welcome Richard. I'd agree with your implied sentiment that the first year of a GM model (or one from any manufacturer, really) is not a great idea. It's like never installing a Microsoft OS until Service Pack 1 is released... a generic truism that works in real life.

It seems that the initial Volt will be a hatchback, but with a significant rake to the rear glass so it'll be more practical than a trunk, but probably less practical than your Prius or my Legacy Wagon. Hopefully they'll make a proper wagon version of it before I need a new car, or I probably won't consider it seriously.