By on May 18, 2009

The Freeps Mark Phelan has a new paean to the Chevy Volt mule’s electric grunt, saying the Cruze bodied tech-tester has “immediate torque for acceleration most sporty small cars would envy.” As GM prepares to build the first run of Volt-bodied test mules starting in mid-June, it’s bumping up the media presence of its last best hope by offering flacks like Phelan another test drive. And this time around the Volt’s “sporty acceleration” tops the talking points. “The test vehicle ran with smooth, quiet power,” reports Phelan, “but driving it felt reassuringly like getting behind the wheel of any new car.” Which conveniently is “a key goal for the Volt program,” according to GM EV Maestro Frank Weber. Another “key goal?” Making it look good enough to draw interest at its $35K price point.

GM-volt.com‘s Lyle Dennis wonders “why GM still needs more time to bring the Volt to market.” After all, they’ve been working on it for what, two years now? It’s just an expensive Chevy with an unproven power system. What’s the big holdup? Looks, apparently.

“Most of it truly is the aesthetic side of it,” Volt Chief Engineer Andrew Farah tells Dennis. “The mule cars aren’t pretty. We know that people want a vehicle that is distinctive.”

In other words, not the Chevy Cruze. That thing is fugly. Or, “not distinctive,” anyway. Do I smell a marketing tagline in the making? Introducing Chevy Cruze: Not Distinctive. At all. Please spend twice as much on the Volt.

And the Volt was distinctive at one point. But then GM took its model to the wind tunnel and found that it was more aerodynamic going backwards than forwards. Since its Prian makeover last fall, we’ve known essentially what the Volt would look like, and distinctive it ain’t. But, according to Farah, the aesthetic features “only comes together in the final stages.”

Building a car “is a lot like fashion,” says Farah. “If you start too soon you’re selling something that’s already old.”

So why have we already seen two different Volts being pimped in GM ads for years now? Is the Volt going to receive another refresh before it heads into production? Farah isn’t forthcoming with the details, but if this line of questioning misses the point as far he’s concerned.

The real upshot? “The things that are holding it up are really the typical new vehicle kinds of things.” As in not the electric underpinnings, which have so far “proven very robust and successful.” How robust? “Nothing has come up that we haven’t had an answer for,” he tells Dennis. There have been no “unanticipated problems.” How reassuring.

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24 Comments on “Volt Birth Watch 140: Aesthetic Holdups...”


  • avatar
    Brian E

    Wait… so the “production” Volt reveal last fall wasn’t actually production? I’m shocked, shocked to find out that it was just another concept.

  • avatar
    Ingvar

    “If you start too soon you’re selling something that’s already old.”

    Camaro, anyone?

    If the Volt is nothing but a Cruze in drag and with a different driveline, why just not skip the Volt-cladding and let it be a Cruze Hybrid then? It would save some billions on r&d. The problem with the Volt is that it’s not more distinctive than its Cruze underpinnings.

  • avatar
    Autojunkie

    The problem is that it takes more than two years to develop a vehicle. Normal powertrain development, from scratch, can take five years or more.

    I tend to think that GM has been kicking butt to get this car into consumer’s hands and I also think the buying public is going to be very receptive of this vehicle. If select consumers were willing to pay $30K for a Pruis at one time then I’m sure some select consumers will be willing to pay $35K for the first couple of Volt model years.

  • avatar
    Autojunkie

    Also… Making “just a Cruze bodied hybrid” would be making the same mistake that Honda did with the Civic Hybrid.

  • avatar
    no_slushbox

    If it wasn’t bad enough that the Volt was going to be vastly more expensive than the Toyota and Honda hybrid sedans, now when the Volt comes out it will even be more expensive than a Lexus hybrid sedan.

    The Volt’s technology – a series hybrid, almost electric car with a range extending internal combustion engine that has no mechnical connection to the wheels – is the technology of the future.

    But in the present the Volt is just going to be another swoopy car with a “hybrid” badge, except at a much higher price.

  • avatar
    tedward

    If GM had a sense of humour they’d give TTAC first drive.

    I’m not sure if the collective TTAC response would be laughter or tears.

  • avatar
    Edward Niedermeyer

    For a near word-for-word repetition of Phelan’s piece today, check out Scott Burgess’s piece in the DetN. Someone at GM really wants people to know that the only problem with the Volt is “lots of little things.”

  • avatar

    hmm.

    @autojunkie: yeah, VERY select consumers might pay 35k. People like the people who leased the EV1. Hollywood types. Maybe Tom Cruise (no pun intended!). (Forgive me, but if I had 35 Gs to blow on a car, it would probably be a used Cayman.)

    If I were GM: I’d get a really good stylist to take the second gen Corvair and make it aerodynamic. I wouldn’t tell people necessarily–this owuldn’t have to be some sort of retro thingee. I’d just use it as a starting point.

  • avatar
    dcdriver

    I going out on a real limb here in predicting that the Volt will be a huge epic sales fail at $35k.

  • avatar
    KixStart

    Building a car “is a lot like fashion,” says Farah. “If you start too soon you’re selling something that’s already old.”

    Hmm… Isn’t this a problem for all cars? Of course, if GM would just shut up about the Volt, it might not be a huge letdown when it finally does hit the showroom floor.

    If you’re going to go check GM-Volt, also check a more recent article with Fritz Henderson’s remarks on why you should hold off buying a Prius and wait for the Volt. Caution: If your doctor has ever told you laughter is bad for your heart, do not read that article.

    Did GM let Phelan drive the car with the ICE active? Did they let him experience operation after “customer depletion point?” There’s no indication of this in his article (or in Burgess’). So far, from what I understand, no outsider has driven the Volt in range-extension mode. It could be that dcdriver understates the case and the Volt will be a huge epic fail at any price.

  • avatar
    gslippy

    This set off the BS detector. The glaring absence of any reporting on the ICE performance tells me it stinks.

    People won’t dig a car that has two 0-60 times and requires two fuels, and costs 2x what a ‘normal’ car does.

  • avatar
    faygo

    given the hardpoints of the Cruze platform GM has to work with, they’ve done a reasonable job of differentiation from the Cruze.

    there are no “billions to be saved” by just sticking the Voltec (or WTF they’re calling it this week) drivetrain into the Cruze. they’d probably save ~$200 million, give or take by not tooling the unique top hat parts (unique body panels, ip, etc) but would also be unable to differentiate it in the marketplace from the Cruze. they’ve made a business decision about differentiation & put a cost on it on both the development & customer demand side. we’ll see whether they’ve guessed right.

    the transformation from “Wow !” to “meh” from the original concept car is typical, esp if you’re going to optimize aero factors. it’s much easier to design in aero efficiency than it is to squeeze more miles out of the existing battery pack and/or buying more cells & adding even more cost. same reason that the Insight looks like a Prius – air likes to behave the same way for everyone.

  • avatar
    Ingvar

    The transformation to the “productionalized” Volt was not one step from “Wow!” to “Meh!”, more like a step from “Ok?” to “WTF!” The productionalized Volt is to the concept what the Pontiac Aztek is to its Pontiac Trans Sport underpinnings. A bloaty, hideous abomination. Or something like a charicature of Groucho Marx penned by Berke Breathed. The productionalized Volt has taken some, but not all of the concepts styling cues, and tried to apply them wholesale in a different context, totally out of proportion.

    Like making blacked out window sills in plastic, where the concept had glass window inserts in the doors. Like WTF? If they couldn’t transfer those cute windows for some reason or another, Why the fuck didn’t they skip them alltogether? I mean, really? WTF? And that has NOTHING to do with “optimize aero factors”. That’s pure bullshit. It has EVERYTHING to do with cutting corners and hoping that nobody will notice the difference. Like they haven’t done that trick before?

  • avatar

    Kixstart,

    could you give us the URL for this? Every doc I know recommends laughter:

    If you’re going to go check GM-Volt, also check a more recent article with Fritz Henderson’s remarks on why you should hold off buying a Prius and wait for the Volt. Caution: If your doctor has ever told you laughter is bad for your heart, do not read that article.

  • avatar
    Autojunkie

    Ingvar – plastic weighs less than glass…

  • avatar
    KixStart

    David Holzman,

    Sure:

    First, put down the coffee.

  • avatar
    Ingvar

    @Autojunkie: You don’t get it, do you? If they can’t apply that particular design feature, then don’t. Blacked out plastic window sills doesn’t make anybody happy. Especially considering how neat they looked on the concept. The point is just that, the productionalized Volt is nothing but a sick joke, on the taxpayers expense at that.

  • avatar
    Seth L

    I do give them credit for acutally having a car that will likely enter production. Unlike every chryco EV, or the Fisker Karma, or the new Tesla.

  • avatar
    Lokkii

    +1 for Ingvar

    What’s the old saying?

    Something like:

    “After a great trembling of mountains is born a pathetic mouse”

    It doesn’t help the situation if the mouse is wearing plastic moose antlers.

  • avatar

    The things that are holding it up are really the typical new vehicle kinds of things.” As in not the electric underpinnings, which have so far “proven very robust and successful.” How robust? “Nothing has come up that we haven’t had an answer for,” he tells Dennis. There have been no “unanticipated problems.” How reassuring.

    That is reassuring, since that’s how successful product department happens. I’m not saying that Farah is being 100% forthcoming but I worked in an R&D lab for a long time and this sounds like the normal process.

  • avatar

    # tedward :
    May 18th, 2009 at 12:09 pm

    If GM had a sense of humour they’d give TTAC first drive.

    I’m not sure if the collective TTAC response would be laughter or tears.

    Actually, if GM was confident about the state of development at this time, I think it would be a brilliant PR move for the automaker to offer Farago a test drive. RF may have his point of view but he’s got enough integrity to make a fair assessment. A good review from TTAC about the Volt would be gold, I tell you, pure gold.

    Seriously, if the folks on the Volt program and GM marketing had any balls, they’d let Farago drive a Volt mule.

  • avatar

    faygo :

    Red pop or Rock & Rye?

  • avatar
    KixStart

    From the article: “He concluded therefore “the things that are holding it up are really the typical new vehicle kinds of things,” and not in fact the high tech cutting edge battery and powertrain engineering which have so far proven very robust and successful.”

    I find this really hard to believe. If it’s the typical new vehicle things… GM’s done those many times before and this project is supposed to have their best people. Why would there be anything holding it up at all? The answer should be more like “On schedule.” The more credible source for delays is in the weird parts.

    It’s possible that this article, filtered through the hyperenthusiasm of Lyle Dennis, is much ado about nothing at all… that awkwardly phrased questions from Dennis meet slightly tormented or misunderstood answers from Farah and confusion results. Maybe the thing really is 100% on schedule. Frequent GM-Volt and you find confusion often reigns there, anyway; GM’s answers are often confusing, anyway (their execs should keep their mouths shut, instead of showing off how much they “know” about this top project), and the visitors to the site tend to make elaborate castles in the air of the merest wisps of rumor… I think Dennis does it, too.

    But on the face of it, this doesn’t quite ring true.

    Time will tell.

  • avatar
    swanny

    Gosh, GM is all talk, talk, talk, blah, blah, blah. They can’t walk the walk and produce the Volt. What’s with all the hype on a car that might never hit the showrooms (well the ones that are left by the time the Volt comes out)? Wake me up when I can go test drive one at the local dealer.

    GM, you’re a big part of the reason the EV1 was crushed. I haven’t forgot that, that’s why I bought a Prius a year ago. I love it and can’t wait for a plug-in Prius so I can support a company who is actually walking the walk when it comes to producing an “electric” car that’s really a hybrid car.

    Fuck you GM.

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