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Talk about a PR firestorm. After literally years of hype, General Motors presented the finally-it's-done production version of the Chevrolet Volt to the media the other day, and reactions were ... well, "sharply divided" kind of understates the case.
On the one hand, much of the mainstream media hailed the car as a triumph. It's quiet and smooth, they said; it's quicker and brakes better than Toyota's (NYSE: TM ) Prius, and the electric-only range seems higher than advertised.
On the other hand, several automotive commentators (including, somewhat surprisingly, the influential Edmunds) howled with rage over a detail of the car's engineering that they felt had been misrepresented: GM lied! The company said the Volt would be revolutionary, but it's just another hybrid!
So which is it? Is the Volt a triumph, or a fraud? And more to the point, what does all this say about General Motors -- and its critics?
GM didn't lie ... exactly
First, some basics: The Chevy Volt is an electric car, powered by an electric motor, with a gasoline engine that serves as an on-board generator for recharging. Unlike in a conventional hybrid car, the gasoline engine doesn't actually drive the wheels. That's new and novel technology.
Or so GM has been telling everybody who would listen for several years now. It turns out that under certain driving circumstances, the gas engine assists the electric motor, driving a complex gearbox that does, indirectly, drive the wheels. GM's engineers have a whole bunch of good reasons for setting the car up this way, and it doesn't take away from either the quality of the product (in fact, it improves it) or from the assertion that the Volt is, indeed, a new kind of car.
GM probably didn't explain this detail until now because the patent on this particular technology wasn't granted until a couple of weeks ago. While it probably counts as a PR error, or at least a PR awkward moment, in truth, it was a small omission.
But that omission gave GM's diehard critics an opening to howl. That was predictable, and it's something General Motors needs to confront.
Does GM understand that it is not a beloved company?
Look, there are a lot of reasons to dislike GM: The company built lousy cars for decades. Its corporate culture was extraordinarily broken, its management unwilling to confront the increasingly grim nature of the company's situation. It got bailed out by the government via a somewhat novel bankruptcy maneuver that effectively favored the UAW over bondholders, etc., etc.
We've all heard the arguments. They get reprised in comments right here at the Fool every time I write about GM. There's a huge, deeply ingrained prejudice against GM, ranging from high-profile blogs that made their rep on GM "death watches" to new-car buyers who won't set foot in a GM-brand dealership because of resentment over the bailout.
Personally, I think a lot of this is justified. I've dished it out myself from time to time. And it's something GM's marketing and PR folks need to do a better job of taking into account, as the Volt missteps have shown.
But here's the thing, and this is important: A lot of people, including many in the investment community who should know better, are so caught up in the (justifiable) negativity about GM's past that it's hard for them to see the present state of GM through clear lenses. Just as Honda (NYSE: HMC ) is seen by some as coasting on its reputation for innovation, GM is haunted by its own legacy.
Love 'em or hate 'em, there are reasons to believe that this teetering, damaged, long-mismanaged behemoth of a company is finally turning the corner.
Is there an opportunity here?
I haven't driven a Volt, but it's clear from the early reviews that GM is actually delivering a very good car. Sure, it's probably $10,000 too expensive for what it is, but it is from most accounts an impressively well-engineered and well-built car, and GM should have no trouble selling the 15,000 copies it hopes to make next year.
Here's the larger takeaway: GM is not the same company it was two years ago, or five years ago, or 10 years ago. It is being run by a new management team that seems to have a realistic grasp of the challenges facing the company, and the skills to do something about them. Ford's (NYSE: F ) spectacular turnaround has given GM's rank and file a shining, local, easy-to-understand example of what's possible. In bits and pieces, the Volt being the latest bit, there are signs that, after all these years, things might just be coming together.
Will GM be able to pull off a Ford-like reinvention? Will GM's stock be worth buying when it goes public in a few weeks? I don't know. But I do know this: Seismic changes are happening at this company, lots of people haven't caught on yet, and that could create a very interesting investing opportunity. Watch this space.
Think car companies are old news? Fool Tim Beyers says Ford reminds him of one of the world's most innovative companies.
Fool contributor John Rosevear owns shares of Ford, which is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor selection. You can (and should!) try Stock Advisor or any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days, with no obligation. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.
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