Politicians giveth and they taketh away. At least in the United States, where the politics of blind ideology, division and self-interest trump anything resembling honesty, truth and fairness.
General Motors just learned that in the latest manufactured flap over the Chevrolet Volt extended-range electric car.
To recap, U.S. regulators took months to reveal then-months-old concerns over fire risks with the Volt that cropped up as a result of nonsensical testing procedures. Eventually the federal probe involving the car's batteries was closed with no finding of a safety fault.
Just in case, GM said it would install more crash protection for the battery pack. Keep in mind, the so-called "fires" were minor and they only occurred weeks after crash tests that the Volt passed with flying colours.
In other words, U.S. federal regulators crashed the Volt in a side-impact test, then let it sit around for three weeks to see what might happen. Absurd. They didn't do what you and I would do after a serious crash, which would be to turn the car over to qualified technicians so they could assess any potential safety issue like a leaking battery pack or, in a gas- or diesel-powered car, a leaking fuel tank.
Since then, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has said the Volt is safe. Meanwhile, GM CEO Dan Akerson told a U.S. congressional hearing that the Volt has become "a political punching bag" for those opposed to the successful taxpayer bailout that has allowed GM to once again claim the title of one of the world's largest auto makers. Oh, and GM is making billions in profits and employing hundreds of thousands of taxpaying Americans and Canadians.
"We engineered the Volt to show the world the great vehicles we make at General Motors," Akerson said. "Although we loaded the Volt with state-of-the-art safety features, we did not engineer the Volt to be a political punching bag. Sadly, that is what it's become."
GM is now doing something of a relaunch of the Volt, Chris Perry, GM's vice-president for U.S. marketing, told me in Detroit. "It's still a technological marvel," Perry said. "We need to remind people of that."
The politics of it all should not allow us to forget that the Volt represents one technological solution to fuel efficiency and emissions rules growing ever more stringent. I am interested to see if Canada follows the latest trend from California, where regulators issued rules requiring that one in seven cars for sale in 2025 must be zero-emission or a plug-in hybrid.
Vehicles like the Volt are not the only solution to these sorts of rules, but they're in the mix, and a large part of it. The good news is that I have spent enough time in a Volt to say I could live with it – and any car like it – as an everyday city runabout.
Officially, the Volt has a battery-only range of 40-80 kilometres with another 500 km on tap from the battery-charging gas motor on board. You will not really notice when you're in battery mode alone, other than the quick acceleration and dead quiet in the car as you zip through traffic.
The technology comes at a cost. The car lists for $41,545. If you buy in Ontario, the province has an $8,230 subsidy for you; in Quebec, it's $7,769. In return, you should save on fuel costs: for the Volt, GM says they run about 1-2 cents a kilometre versus 6-8 cents a km for a normal gasoline car. That's with gas selling for $1.10-$1.30 a litre.
Fuel prices and politics aside, the Volt is a completely pleasant four-door hatchback. The electric drive means performance is peppy, the seats are comfy, the instruments and controls are clear and cool, right down to the various performance readouts that fill you in on what's happening with the electric drive and so on.
No small matter, that. The Volt has two electric motors and one gas engine. One electric motor powers the wheels, the other the generator that recharges the battery – all 400 pounds of it. The gas engine is there to drive the generator that charges the battery, though occasionally it will turn the wheels.
That battery comes with a warranty lasting eight years or 160,000 km. GM expects the battery to be useful for a lot longer than that, though. Why? The lithium-ion battery array has its own cooling system. Heat is the enemy of lithium-ion batteries, so cooling makes all the difference to battery life. That said, this battery is completely recyclable.
The battery recharges in about 10 hours when plugged into a normal wall socket. A 240V quick-charge cuts that time to four hours. The quick-charge hookup costs $490 plus installation.
A recent buyer study found that Volt owners like the image the car portrays to the world. But there is a real environmental reason to buy this car and anything similar: very low greenhouse gas emissions and less fuel used.
Oh, and the Volt is safe, too.
2012 Chevrolet Volt
Type: Four-door hatchback, extended-range electric vehicle
Price: $41,545 (freight $1,450)
Electric drive motor: 111 kW
Battery pack: 288 cell lithium-ion
Horsepower/torque: 149 hp/273 lb-ft
Gas motor: 1.4-litre, four-cylinder
Horsepower/torque: 63 hp/84 lb-ft
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): Electricity: 2.5 city/2.5 highway; gasoline: 6.7 city/5.9 highway; gasoline motor uses premium fuel
Alternatives: Nissan Leaf, Toyota Prius PHV