Sunday, November 21, 2010

Chevy Volt - Progress or Pork?

The seeds of this story were planted about two years ago as General Motors came hat in hand to Washington D.C. and asked for a bailout from Uncle Sam. GM, along with Chrysler, were unable to turn the ship around using conventional means. The sole holdout from direct Federal money and oversight, Ford, has since rallied strongly, and has gained untold goodwill from Americans that respect their ability to slog through the tough times without government help.

But well before bankruptcy was imminent for GM, the Volt plug-in concept was unveiled in 2007, and public reception was overwhelming. This concept promised the best of both electric vehicles, and conventional gasoline-powered cars. Up to 40 miles of gas-free driving if plugged in every night, but the ability to travel more than 300 miles on a tank of gas in "range-extended" mode.

There was a lot of symbolic and emotional baggage hanging on the development of the Volt, considering the (literally) crushing end to the EV1 program in the late 90s. There were a lot of doubters that GM would actually come through, and if they did, it would be a tightly-managed program of lease-only vehicles that would have to be returned after a given time. Thankfully, this time around, it appears as thought the Volt lease and purchase programs will be comfortingly conventional.
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The Volt has just garnered three significant automotive awards. Motor Trend's Car of the Year, Automobile Magazine's Automobile of the Year, as well as Green Car Journal's Green Car of the Year.

Of course, those of the conservative persuasion are generally immediately suspicious of this car's credentials, or the impetus behind its creation. Some are calling it the "Obama-mobile" or other pejorative terms.

The fact of the matter is, the research and development process on the Volt started well before the Obama administration, and GM's bankruptcy. The fact that development continued on this vehicle through the midst of GM's financial travails carries either negative or positive connotations depending on how you view the logic behind the concept.

Angus MacKenzie, editor of Motor Trend, in a video interview on the Fox Business channel, frankly stated that the combined appetite for new cars from the BRIC bloc of nations (Brazil, Russia, India and China, in case you didn't know) will almost assuredly drive up the price of oil in the years to come. Likely pushing the per-gallon cost of gasoline well beyond the peak of $5 we saw a few years ago. So although the logic and value equation of the Volt seems a little dubious with gas at $3 a gallon, it will probably start making a lot more sense at $8 or $10 a gallon.

Personally, I'm willing to set aside the philosophical objections to GM's bailout, and giving them credit for having the foresight and courage to produce such an advanced vehicle before the need for it is considered critical. Not to play in to the fears of the environmentalist Cassandras, but I feel the time is coming soon when China and India's appetite for middle-class amenities (namely, cars) will have a profound impact on the price of oil, and the United States will find itself in an era of forced frugality. Those with fuel-efficient vehicles will motor through largely unaffected, and those stubbornly hanging onto large-displacement full-size cars and trucks as their primary transportation will have to confront some serious decisions. For everyone's sake, I hope the predictions of astronomical fuel prices turn out not to be as dramatic as some expect. But in the meantime, I'm taking a serious look at putting a Volt in my garage.

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