By Joseph Babiasz
Well, Rush Limbaugh, you've done it! You've managed to tick off one of the biggest right-leaning independents you'll ever meet. I'm a capitalist pig at heart. Just your kind of guy, really. You've recently been bloviating about the Chevy Volt--about its price, that it's built by Government Motors, and that Motor Trend named it Car of the Year. Sensing that your unhappiness with the current administration is spilling over into things you apparently don't understand was enough to make me grab my laptop and pound out this letter.
Having spent 34 years working at General Motors and later owning a car dealership, I'm fortunate enough now to write about cars and travel for a living. I have a pretty good understanding of how the industry works. I admit I buy products from American-based companies whenever possible. And, as far as cars go, you'll never find one with a foreign nameplate in my driveway. I don't expect people to buy inferior products just because they are made in America--but I sure don't support making U.S. companies meet a higher standard than their foreign competitors.
When it comes to the Volt, it seems that if it ran on sunshine and turned nickels into dimes, you still wouldn't be happy. I get that you are displeased with the dirty Obama bailout bath water, but this is one baby you shouldn't toss out.
Let's first address the Volt's price. At $41,000, it's not as cheap as a Chevy Malibu--nor should it be. That doesn't make it the most, or least, expensive car of its size. I wanted to say "in its class" --but there is none. The closest competitors are either hybrids such as the Toyota Prius or electric vehicles such as the Nissan Leaf.
Today's hybrids barely exceed the best of their non-hybrid competitors for fuel mileage and cost of ownership. They are simply cars with all the mechanical complexity of a conventional gasoline-engine driveline, plus all the electrical complexity of a second electric-powered driveline--integrated about as well as any two incompatible systems can be.
As for electric-powered vehicles, the Nissan Leaf is the only one that offers any significant range. Still, Nissan Leaf drivers had better have the extension cord ready, and several hours of time to wait, before the car will travel even one more foot once you've reached the end of its range.
Compare this with the Volt. Many commuters will never have to buy a gallon of gas to get to work and back in their Chevy Volt. And if they decide to go on vacation and see the U.S.A. in their Chevrolet, they can do so without worrying about charging stations, while getting better fuel mileage than most hybrids dream of. How do you put a price on that?
The Volt is almost a reinvention of the automobile as we know it. A family-size, four-seater, it can go up to 35 miles without burning a drop of fuel. Based on the comparable cost of electricity, $1.50 for a full charge, the EPA rates the Volt at 93 m.p.g.
When you drive the Chevy Volt beyond 35 miles, the range-extender engine charges its batteries while you drive, resulting in higher m.p.g. figures. For example, if you drive 45 miles between charges, about 10 miles using the gasoline-assist feature, you'll get 168 m.p.g. With a full tank of gasoline, you can expect to drive nearly 400 miles before you need a fill-up--which means you can easily drive the Volt from coast to coast as in any conventional car.
Investments in new technology are always costly. In 1908, Ford's Model T cost $850 (about $20,000 today). Streamlined production brought the price down to $250 in 1927 (about $3,000 today).
And what about today's mobile phones--many of which are about as powerful as any desktop computer five years ago? In 1983, an installed car phone cost about $1,000 (or $4,000 for a hand-held portable like the Motorola DynaTAC 8000X, better known as "The Brick"). You paid up to $1.00 per minute for service. Like the DynaTAC 8000X, the Volt is an important first step.
In fact, the technology embodied by the Volt has more in common with your computer than the car in your garage. It may start out with a steel chassis, but that is about where the interchangeable parts end compared to other cars. Trying to compare this machine to other cars is like saying all computer chips are the same since they are made of sand.
As for your comments about Government Motors, I didn't like the bailout either. But if GM hadn't been helped, the company would have collapsed, dragging with it the supplier base, putting millions of people out of work, and doing serious economic harm to the hundreds of thousands of retired employees who, like me, would have seen their financial security vanish in an instant.
While I think President Obama is doing a poor job in general, the auto bailout is one decision I give him kudos for. On the other hand, Sens. Coker of Tennessee and Shelby of Alabama--who politicized the auto bailouts while encouraging foreign-based manufacturers to locate in their states--owe the American people an apology.
GM is not Government Motors. Our best shot at making this a good taxpayer investment comes in the form of a successful GM.
I don't see GM squandering this golden opportunity to reinvent itself. Just look at their turnaround in the last 14 months. Their latest balance sheet and product lines underscore that the company hasn't been this competitive since the Sixties.
The final point I take issue with is your criticism of Motor Trend awarding the Chevy Volt its coveted Car of the Year award. You wondered how this was even possible with the car not on sale yet. Are you not aware that the staff of car magazines get to drive and extensively test new vehicles well in advance of their introduction to the public?
I don't always agree with Motor Trend. In fact, I took them to task here on AutomotiveTraveler.com over some of their comparison-testing methodology. But I do believe they got it right with the Volt. They were hypercritical in their testing, and the Volt was clearly deserving of the award. "Rush to Judgment" by Todd Lassa, Motor Trend's Detroit editor, lays out their convincing case.
The Chevy Volt is a symbol of the new General Motors. The car has revitalized and re-energized the company from the assembly line to the executive suite. In order for you to talk honestly about the company behind this path-breaking vehicle, you should visit the GM Tech Center in Warren, Michigan--and the Hamtramck assembly plant where production on the Volt began this week. I think I still have enough clout there to get you in.
Drive a few of their world-class vehicles, talk to their outstanding engineers, designers, and union members. You might even get a peek at a few things in the pipeline. After that, talk all you want about GM. And if you do decide to visit, I wonder if the first words out of your mouth might be, "I was wrong."