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Volt: Promise, pizzazz and politics

December 2, 2010
http://detnews.com/article/20101202/OPINION03/12020405

Volt: Promise, pizzazz and politics

DANIEL HOWES
Enjoy the PR jolt from the Chevrolet Volt, arguably the most hyped new car in recent memory.
The extended-range electric car is nuts-and-bolts evidence that Detroit can set a standard in the politically correct world of advanced technology vehicles. It represents new engineering jobs and maybe the seeds of a new industry in a state badly in need of both. And it’s being assembled in Michigan, purportedly the epicenter of American industrial decline.
No wonder Bob Lutz stuck his tongue out during Tuesday’s dog-and-pony at General Motors Co.’s Hamtramck Assembly. The Volt and the technology driving it are a collective obscene gesture to the congressional-and-coastal chorus that spent years cheering the demise of large chunks of the domestic auto industry.
All good, except for one very important thing that bears clear repeating: But for the largesse of American taxpayers, to the tune of $7,500 per copy, the $41,000 compact Volt (and other alternative-fuel vehicles from rivals foreign and domestic) would risk being a costly science experiment priced too high for the market to bear.
Add the implied political pressure from GM’s largest shareholder, the Obama administration, the Inside-the-Beltway crowd and their friends in the environmental lobby — all of whom want this car on the market, whether it proves commercially viable or not — and it’s fair to say the Volt is not just another new car.
It’s a statement of politics, culture and technology subsidized by you, me and Uncle Sam, which gives new meaning to the term “rebate.” Still, the Volt is coming at the right time, which is a first in itself, or pretty close to it, for the Detroit automaker too often synonymous with bad timing and missed opportunities.
Not now.
Auto sales surged again in November, with GM up 12 percent and its Detroit rivals tracking higher, too. Private-sector job creation and rising stock markets are buoying consumer confidence, unleashing pent-up demand for new cars and trucks at a time when Detroit’s collective lineup is one of the strongest in decades.
And if the global recovery and its American variant gains steam — not at all certain given spreading euro-sclerosis fears — you can bet oil prices will be sure to follow. They did Wednesday when a 250-point surge in the Dow Jones Industrial Average was matched by a nearly 3.2 percent jump in the price of a barrel of oil.
Talk-radio conspiracy theorists may spy a grand plan at work here. Right, as if a government that can’t keep its own secrets or decide on tax rates for next year could develop a car, manipulate demand for GM’s initial public offering, command market forces in the preferred direction and goose oil prices in hopes of increasing demand for a new-tech niche car.
Unlikely.
The Volt does, however, put GM in front of the latest wave of advanced tech vehicles, perhaps defining a new segment like Toyota’s Prius hybrid did a decade ago. The new Chevy creates badly needed engineering jobs, enables Michigan to refocus manufacturing capability for battery production and represents a potential image transformation begun long before the feds and our dollars arrived to rescue GM from itself.
The Volt also represents the sum of Washington’s desire for the U.S. auto industry writ large — smaller, greener, more expensive vehicles subsidized by American taxpayers, most of whom probably wouldn’t choose to buy one of them, all things being equal.
What is the demand? Who knows, because GM isn’t saying how many orders it has received, save a big fat one from General Electric Co. You know GE, that industrial behemoth whose energy businesses and financial self-interests dovetail perfectly with the accelerating arc of government support for alternative-tech vehicles like the Volt. The buying public may be a different matter entirely.
In a month of good news for GM and Detroit’s automakers generally, the Volt’s debut is gratifying step in the right direction. But the next time you see someone driving one, remember to offer them two small words — “You’re welcome.”

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