I took some flak from a few readers for suggesting in January that the Chevy Volt needed "saving." There never was any real problem with the Volt, these readers said. As one told me, "It's hard to fix a problem that doesn't exist."
From the perspective of these readers, the fire that broke out in the crash-tested Volt was the result of an unrealistic amount of damage, blown out of proportion by overzealous regulators, distorted by a hostile and clueless press … you get the idea. There isn't, they said, any actual safety problem with the Volt, and there probably never was.
As it happens, I mostly agree with all of that. But something about the Volt needs fixing: namely, the fact that it's not selling. In its latest effort to change that, the company is deploying aliens.
Volt sales get zapped
After selling a record 1,529 Volts in December, General Motors (NYSE: GM ) managed to move just 603 in January – the car's worst month since last August.
Momentum for the innovative plug-in hybrid had been building since summer, but negative publicity of the last couple of months may have hurt sales, GM executives have said. Speaking before a Congressional panel in January, CEO Dan Akerson lamented "collateral damage" resulting from the Volt having become "a political punching bag."
There's no doubt that the Volt has become exactly that. Conservative talk-radio hosts and TV personalities like Fox News's Eric Bolling have denounced the car, seeing it as an overhyped, overly expensive, taxpayer-funded boondoggle. Bolling even claimed that his test-driven Volt had "run out of electricity" on him in the Lincoln Tunnel, an event he complained about extensively on air.
Bolling wasn't stranded, or even inconvenienced -- the car simply switched to its gas-powered generator on the fly, as designed. But his point was made: The car's all-electric range after 12 hours of charging is actually quite short. At a moment when Tesla Motors (Nasdaq: TSLA ) is touting 160-mile-plus ranges for its upcoming all-electric sedan, which starts at a price not all that far north of the Volt's, the attack has some resonance.
In an election year, when attacks on GM's taxpayer-funded bailout are really intended as attacks on the Obama administration, there's likely to be a lot more of this stuff. Does GM have any hope of salvaging its halo car's reputation and restarting sales?
GM thinks so, and those aliens are part of its solution.
Can aliens save the Volt?
It's clear that the company's going to try. Akerson's appearance on Capitol Hill in January coincided with a series of newspaper ads defending the Volt after it was declared safe by Federal regulators. That was the first salvo, and the company followed up with a Super Bowl ad last weekend.
In the ad, a Volt owner patiently explains how the car works to a group of befuddled aliens – and to consumers as well, many of whom have been confused by the difference between the Volt and conventional hybrids like Toyota's (NYSE: TM ) hot-selling Prius.
Selling the Volt's advantages over the Prius will be a daunting task for GM, not least because the Prius is substantially less expensive. But it's important – while the Prius has been a strong seller for long enough that most people at least know someone who owns one, the Volt represents a genuinely new approach to the problem of combining gas and electric propulsion.
But whether it's a better approach is still an open question. Volt owners love their cars, but new "plug-in" hybrids from Toyota and Ford (NYSE: F ) will offer similar functionality -- with more conventional (read: less daunting to consumers) technology.
To sell the Volt successfully, GM needs to explain not just why it's good, but why it's better. The truth is, it's a pretty good car – arguably one of GM's best models. But it's also expensive, and it has been tarred, probably unfairly, by politically motivated attacks. Can GM and its aliens pull off a Volt turnaround? We'll find out.
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