Volt Buyers 'Idiots'? Audi President Is The One Who's Wrong

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Johan de Nysschen

Johan de Nysschen

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We were going to let it slide, really. Just because the U.S. president of a major automaker calls the buyers of another carmaker's product "idiots" is no reason for us to sink to name calling.

But the hoohah has continued, and the misunderstandings seem to be growing. We thought it was time to contribute a few facts and some actual data to the uproar.

Electric cars? For "idiots"

Two days ago, MSN Autos quoted Audi of America President Johan de Nysschen telling reporter Laurence Ulrich that the 2011 Chevrolet Volt extended-range electric vehicle was "a car for idiots."

He based his argument on two points: The Volt will never pay back its extra cost in fuel savings, and plug-in cars that run on electricity would "result in a net increase in carbon dioxide emissions" because much of the American grid "relies on dirty coal."

The first is just his guess, based on price rumors. And on the second, sadly, he is just flat-out wrong.

(Audi has since been doing damage control and de Nysschen claims he misspoke. More on that below.)

2011 Chevrolet Volt

2011 Chevrolet Volt

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first pre production chevrolet volt prototype 001

first pre production chevrolet volt prototype 001

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Volt payback: Only rumors

On the first, de Nysschen is basing his calculations on rumors. Unless and until GM releases the price for its 2011 Volt, it's all supposition.

It's been widely rumored that the 2011 Chevy Volt will sticker around $40,000, but the actual price likely won't be known for another year, assuming it arrives in November 2010 as promised.

“No one is going to pay a $15,000 premium for a car that competes with a (Toyota) Corolla,” he told Ulrich. “So there are not enough idiots who will buy it.”

That assumes the compact Volt will compete directly against other compact cars, like the Corolla. But that hasn't proven to be true for other advanced technology cars, like hybrids.

The Toyota Prius, for instance, is often a substitute for luxury cars like the ones Audi sells. We think that may be the case for the Chevy Volt's early years too, before lithium-ion cell costs fall.

2010 Toyota Prius

2010 Toyota Prius

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Could a GM-branded Prius be in your future?

Could a GM-branded Prius be in your future?

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EVs = more CO2? Wrong, wrong, wrong

On his second point, that electric cars would increase CO2 emissions compared to diesels, de Nyscchen is absolutely wrong.

A recent study of the U.S. market shows that how green a plug-in is depends on where it's plugged in. But a mile driven on electricity always produces less CO2 than driving that same mile in a 25-mile-per-gallon gasoline car. Always.

And the same applies to diesel at slightly lower levels--say 20 miles per gallon--since diesel engines are more efficient per gallon (and hence emit less carbon) than gasoline engines.

Extreme case: Dirtiest grid

If you're comparing to a 50-mpg gasoline car (say, the 2010 Toyota Prius), or a 40-mpg diesel car (say, the new 2010 Audi A3 TDI), then you need to know more about your local grid.

In states with very dirty (or "high-carbon") power, that 50-mpg 2010 Prius or 40-mpg A3 TDI emits slightly less carbon on a full "wells to wheels" basis than it would if powered on electricity.

In Wyoming or North Dakota, for instance, the power is largely from burning coal and hence exceptionally dirty. Making a kilowatt-hour of electricity generates more than 1,000 grams of CO2, or twice the national average. There, the Prius or A3 TDI is a better bet.

The American and Japanese competition face delays as the Germans have the segment to themselves

The American and Japanese competition face delays as the Germans have the segment to themselves

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