The Chevy Volt, unveiled yesterday at the Detroit show (NAIAS)
General Motors (GM) may yet look back fondly on 2006 as the year in which it was forced into saving itself as a company. It was a bad year for the company. Its stock classification was reduced to junk, it closed several plants, and CEO Rick Waggoner had to fight against a majority shareholder who pushed for a tie up with Renault-Nissan. On top of all this, as GM finished crushing the last of its electric EV1s, Tesla Motors launched a sexy electric sports car, which proved battery technology was ready, here and now to power sports cars. To rub salt into the wound, GM was then humiliated in the film ‘Who Killed the Electric Car?’ which painted the firm as public enemy number one in resisting the move away from the internal combustion engine and oil dependency.
An old ad for GM's last electric car, the Saturn EV1
But adversity can do a company good, and this week in Detroit, GM appeared to have about turned on electric cars, in unveiling the Chevrolet volt – a hybrid petrol-electric concept car, which can be plugged in to main grid electricity to recharge and be driven 45 miles on the battery power alone. Now, as Marc Geller reports on his blog plugs and cars, even the director of “Who Killed the Electric Car?” Chris Paine, is “convinced GM is serious about making a transition from fossil fuel to electric power for its vehicles”
Problem is, as Bill Magavern of The Sierra Club points out, GM haven’t named a date as to when they’ll actually build it. It does seem like the wind has changed at GM however – the top guys seem behind it this time. Anyone in the auto industry will tell you that when Bob Lutz (Vice Chairman of GM) speaks, you sit up and take note. So when he says
“This is the most exciting programme I have had anything to do with in my career. Everything else has been a variation on a theme but this is ground-breakingly different. It will make a profound difference not just to the automotive industry but to the way we live”
- one would hazard the opinion that GM plans to build the Volt one day soon.
The holy trinity of car design? Bob Lutz (GM), Anne Asensio (GM), Patrick le Quement (Renault)
Furthermore, the EV1 was a gawky, oddly proportioned device, marketed under GM’s value brand, Saturn, whereas the Volt flies a Chevrolet flag - Chevrolet, who don’t forget, make the all-American muscle hero car, the Camaro. The fact that the design team was lead by Anne Asensio is a very good sign too. Asensio has risen fast though the ranks at GM, and is currently executive director of design. She’s tipped to take over from Patrick le Quement when he retires as head of Renault design, so she must be hot stuff.
Side view of Volt illustrates slightly odd proportions and cab-back stance
To me, whilst the Volt’s design is a little unconventional, and doesn't scream 'gorgeous', it combines enough concept car exaggeration with the right amount of road going realism to make it believable and potentially desirable.
Five, even three years ago, with Honda and Toyota unveiling hybrids, GM were no-where to be seen. The success of Toyota’s hybrid Prius, combined with the flak from the film “Who killed the electric car?” stung GM though. So this time, instead of doing nothing when rumours started to surface about Toyota designing it’s own plug-in hybrid version of the Prius, GM decided to beat them to it, and be the first manufacturer to announce a plug-in-hybrid, the Volt. Albeit in concept form, what this really says is ‘watch out everyone, there might just be some life in ‘The General’ yet’. All they need now is to actually build it. I think they will.
More to come shortly on the Volt, plus electric cars, hybrids and alternative propulsion in general.
Posted by Joseph Simpson on 09th January 2007