General Motors Deathwatch 197: The Volt Lie

Paul Niedermeyer
by Paul Niedermeyer
general motors deathwatch 197 the volt lie

The unveiling of the production version of the Volt will go down in history as one of GM’s final coffin nails. Not only does it mark the death of the Volt cult, but it also signals the end of the whole “concept/dream car” era as invented by GM’s legendary Harley Earl in the fifties. Bob Lutz has thrown his “Hail Mary pass” right into the stands. The fans are furious, heading for the exits.

Strong words, considering GM has committed to actually building the Volt. But the promise of the Volt, as defined by the concept car, was something totally different from the perfectly ordinary-looking compact sedan revealed. The Volt concept was a blatant effort by Lutz to tap into the last vestiges of the Futurama psyche: a place where reality is suspended in the belief that a better (and greener) tomorrow really exists, thanks to GM’s infinite technical and styling prowess.

Never mind that the Volt concept was utterly impractical, and had zero chance of becoming the actual production car. In typically Lutzian fashion, the gut dominated the head. The car’s profile, the long, low hood, the chopped top, and those huge wheels, pushed out to the extremities, are nothing but a recapitulation of Lutz’s favorite concept, the Cadillac Sixteen. It’s a RWD concept intended to carry a sixteen cylinder engine under the hood, not a coffee-can electric motor driving the front wheels.

The Volt concept was a blatant lie, because nothing of its mini-Sixteen form spoke to its intended EV role. It was a bait-and-switch routine, consciously contrived to generate enthusiasm, such as the 30k names on the “waiting list.” Lutz may imagine himself to be the modern day Harley Earl, driving his beloved (and utterly impractical) gas-turbine powered rocket-ship Firebirds. But no one took dream cars like the Firebirds seriously back then; they were part of the Futurama show of unlimited possibilities– which never actually came.

Lutz lied when he said the Volt just needed to be “aerodynamically optimized.” In reality, GM knew it couldn’t afford to develop the technology as well as a new platform and distinctive body too. The production Volt would, by economic necessity, be part of the Delta II platform and body family. It’s an electrified next-gen Cobalt/Cruze/Astra, plain and simple, with a stupid, fake blanked-out grill. It explains the Volt’s mediocre Cd of .28. The Prius may not be stunning, but Toyota shelled out for a unique platform and (more) aerodynamic body, sans fake grilles.

“Rolling turd-mobile” is just one (delicate) sampling of the profound sense of disappointment at Volt Nation. The “leaked” images of the production Volt unleashed a tsunami of negative comments (over 800 and still growing). Some asked to be taken of the (un-official) waiting list, and many are apoplectic. What gives? Weren’t they mainly interested in a car with a 40-mile electric-only range?

The Volt concept coupled the powerful emotional and visceral right-brain appeal of a snorting Cadillac Sixteen with the left-brain advantages of an EV. It was the royal flush, the four cherries, the completed Hail Mary pass that would resurrect GM from the ashes of its (self-induced) immolation. The Messiah/Volt would leap-frog the Prius (and the ascending Asia it represents) as well as shove a giant middle finger in OPEC’s face. America’s place in the world would be restored.

But the production Volt brings to light a grim and stark reality: it’s just an ordinary-looking car. Where’s the (Pontiac) excitement and fun in that? Yes, GM has made an important (and necessary) step in the long-term electrification of the automobile. But it’s hardly alone in that. And it may not be all that exciting, either. In fact, the electrification of the automobile represents the triumph of the left-brain/form follows function/Japanese approach to car building: rational, systematic, measured integration of technology, continuous improvement, and cost-effective (profitable) production. The very qualities that lead to the Asian dominance of the American car market, and cars like the Prius (there never was a Prius concept, it just appeared one day, production-ready).

The glorious fifties and sixties are long gone and dead, despite Detroit’s best efforts to evoke them with retro pony cars and Volt dream-car concepts. And the much-hated Prius represents the force that killed that era. No wonder so much of the scorn being dished out at is laced with Japanese model names: “Ugh; it looks like a bastard child of a Prius and a Civic.” What the GM faithful were looking for, what Lutz got them excited about, was the equivalent of the 1963 Riviera coupe powered by a nuclear reactor. And they were willing to pony-up. But what they’re seeing now is a forty-grand Cobalt. And falling gas prices. And rising electric rates. Suddenly, the Prius and Insight look… not so ugly after all.

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  • Ex gm guy Ex gm guy on Sep 16, 2008

    Let's list some of GM's radically new designs over the years (in no particular order): Corvair Vega Fiero X - Car (Citation, et. al.) GMRE (GM rotary engine) powered Monza. Dustbuster minivans Given that kind of track record, sign me up for one of of those shiny new $40,000 Volts. Does it come standard with 100 ft. of extension cord so I can recharge it in my driveway? Didn't think so.

  • EddieNYC EddieNYC on Sep 17, 2008

    Is GM Management doing this on purpose? I remember a FarSide cartoon, where the chairman of a hotdog company saying to his board of directors "I believe that this company is being mis-managed." In the background there is a picture of a hot dog 90 degrees perpendicular to the bun... In GM's case, no one is noticing the picture.

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