If Consumer Reports didn't exist, someone would have to invent it.

It may be the most trusted brand in evaluating cars, and it offered reliability ratings well before J.D. Power became a household name. A bad rating can send auto execs crawling to its doors to learn what they need to change to get a better assessment.

The magazine is remorselessly, relentlessly rational about assessing vehicles. Which is how GM's range-extended electric car, the 2011 Chevrolet Volt, ended up with the short end of the Consumer Reports review stick.

Costly, short range, MPGs so-so

CR criticized the Volt's $41,000 price--more than twice the cost of a similarly sized 2011 Chevrolet Cruze with five seats to the Volt's four--its short range as an electric vehicle, and its fuel economy when running in gasoline mode.

The EPA gives the 2011 Toyota Prius a 50-mpg combined gas-mileage rating, which is higher than the Volt's 37-mpg rating when using its gasoline engine.

The magazine praised the Volt's acceleration, its build quality and equipment, its handling, and its ability to avoid using gasoline altogether.

But the Volt "is going to be a tough sell to the average consumer," said David Champion, who runs the auto testing center that Consumer Reports operates to assess the cars it buys. CR, by the way, paid a $5,000 dealer markup for the Volt it bought to test.

'Doesn't make a lot of sense'

The magazine says that from a "purely logical point of view," the 2011 Chevy Volt "doesn't really make a lot of sense." And it's right.

If, that is, you are the kind of sober, humorless, facts-and-figures car buyer who is interested in a car solely for its transportation value, the dollars and cents of owning it, and how many cupholders it has and where they're positioned.

Most car buyers aren't like that, though.

Facts + perceptions

The wonderful thing about covering the auto industry is that car purchases blend CR-style, just-the-facts-ma'am assessment of what a vehicle offers with poorly understood perceptions of what a particular model says about who you are as a person.

Many people are willing to trade some "payback," or the money they'll save on gasoline, for prestige or for the perception that they're the particular kind of person who would buy a specific make and model of car.

As we often point out (to the continuing annoyance of one faithful reader), many Toyota Prius drivers didn't buy their hybrids for the money they'll save on fuel.

Making a statement

Instead, they wanted the car to make a public statement about their values. That group of Prius owners don't care about the payback, because the car says something about who they are.

We'd wager that many early Volt buyers are just the same. They're more than willing to pay the extra money up front for their car. We know many work obsessively to drive only on grid power, never burning a drop of gasoline.

And they're well aware that it would be cheaper to drive a 2011 Toyota Prius. But they don't care: They want to drive green, in the car that they feel offers the best mix of capabilities for how they live.

Costs will come down

As annual production of plug-in cars rises, and advances in lithium-ion cells and other components roll out, the cost of future Volts will fall. Within 10 years, battery packs may cost only half of what they do today.

That will bring plug-in cars within spitting distance of their gasoline counterparts on purchase price. Then, it's game on, since running costs on grid power are already just one-fith to one-third of the cost-per-mile of fueling with gasoline.

Sometime within the next decade, Consumer Reports will no longer be able to say the Volt isn't practical.

Living with compromise

Champion did say he thinks General Motors "will sell the quantity [of Volts] that they want to sell to the people that really want it."

And he says Volt buyers "are going to live with the compromises the vehicle delivers."

Based on the feedback we see from many current Volt owners, we think they'll be very happy doing it, too.

[Detroit News]


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