Chevy Volt Electric Car, Age 1: Can It Survive Toddler Years?

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2011 Chevrolet Volt outside Detroit-Hamtramck assembly plant

2011 Chevrolet Volt outside Detroit-Hamtramck assembly plant

One year ago today, the very first 2011 Chevrolet Volt range-extended electric car was delivered to a retail buyer, in Denville, New Jersey.

The Volt was intended not only to be the first production plug-in electric car from General Motors--erasing memories of the ill-fated EV1--but to serve as a technology halo car for the just-bailed-out company.

What a difference a year makes.

Against a steady drumbeat of anti-Volt diatribes from the occasionally fact-free Fox News, the Volt has racked up some interesting numbers.

So it seemed to us it was time to look at the Volt, one year later, and think about where it is today compared to, say, the 2007 Detroit Auto Show where the first Volt Concept was unveiled to rapturous reviews.


Enormous Media Exposure: The Toyota Prius hybrid-electric vehicle remains the gas-mileage leader in the U.S. market, but with volume sales and familiarity, it's become a part of the landscape.

2011 Chevrolet Volt

2011 Chevrolet Volt

Starting in 2007, GM was extraordinarily transparent discussing the Volt program, its lithium-ion battery testing, the drivetrain details, and its efforts to bring a radically new technology and vehicle to market on a very tight schedule.

Perhaps the company had nothing to lose, but it was the right decision: Compared to the opaque development programs at other makers--virtually all Asian companies, and lately Ford's 110-percent-on-message ability to respond with talking points to virtually any question--it was exemplary.

And it worked. GM got almost five years of media exposure for a car that will sell in low volumes and likely not make a dime for years (just like the Prius, ahem).

It's Built In The U.S. of A.: It's long been assumed by the car-buying public that while U.S. makers are good at pickups, the innovation in fuel efficiency all comes from overseas.

First 2011 Chevrolet Volt built on production tooling at Detroit Hamtramck plant, March 31, 2010

First 2011 Chevrolet Volt built on production tooling at Detroit Hamtramck plant, March 31, 2010

By choosing to build the Volt in its Detroit-Hamtramck assembly plant, GM put a stake in the ground for American innovation. That has undoubtedly helped it appeal to buyers who want to buy a U.S.-built car from a domestic automaker--but walked away years ago (see below).

New, Formerly Unavailable Buyers: The early buyers of Volts, by and large, are affluent early adopters in technology forward states like California. Many of those people wrote off Chevies 20 or 30 years ago after they or a relative had one too many bad experiences with badly-built, uncompetitive, half-hearted small cars from GM (or Ford, or Chrysler).

Those folks had to use Google to find out where their local Chevy dealer was located. Though small in number, they are conquests of the best possible kind: They love their cars, talk about them incessantly, show them off regularly, and say "Chevy" a lot.

More Sales Of Regular Old Gasoline Cars: The Chevrolet Cruze compact sedan has been well-reviewed, and the Volt actually uses some of its understructure.

But in-market car buyers who may never have considered Chevrolet compacts will visit just to learn more about the Volt. Some of them leave behind the wheel of a Cruze.

Chevy, Buick, and GMC 'Main Street in Motion' drive event, CitiField, NYC, June 2011

Chevy, Buick, and GMC 'Main Street in Motion' drive event, CitiField, NYC, June 2011

This was best displayed at the GM "Main Street in Motion" event, which visited stadium parking lots around the country to put drivers behind the wheels of Chevy, GMC, and Buick vehicles in a low-pressure environment sans sales staff. To drive the Volt, you first had to drive a Cruze.

The Volt Is Actually A Great Car: Perhaps most surprising to an automotive press often composed of grumpy, doughy, middle-aged white men who loathe anything with even a tinge of green, the Volt is fun to drive, quiet, well-built, and powerful.

Like the all-electric Tesla Roadster before it, the Volt electric car is a vehicle that changes minds and wins hearts.

And it takes away the excuse of range anxiety, which lets too many lazy journalists avoid having to understand how electric cars are actually used in the real world by real drivers.


Battery-Pack Fire Concerns: To us, the most detailed summary of issues around the Volt battery-pack fire concern remains the detailed roundup of news items and perspective published by CalCars.

It argues that GM has done pretty much everything it could do to stay on top of the situation (and the sometimes sloppy reporting of it).

And once more, it bears repeating: None of these fires has occurred in a Volt on the road, being operated by an actual live human being. Or as one commenter quipped, "So what I'm reading is that I should make sure to get out of my wrecked Volt within three weeks?"

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