When Cars of the Year Become Punching Bags

By Bill Moore

Posted: 17 Nov 2012

Let me see if I get this right.

You own a car that won a shelf-full of international automotive awards, including several Cars of the Year. It also happens to represent the cutting edge of technology that has reasserted American leadership over what has been a largely foreign (read Japan) controlled market (read Toyota). Importantly, because of all that American engineering know-how, it has created hundreds, if not thousands of jobs in this country from engineers to assembly line workers while raising the battered moral and prestige of the company that builds it.

And here's the real benefit, it dramatically cuts the amount of petroleum needed to run it; instead, it relies on American-generated electric power. That's not only great for the environment, it's terrific for balance of trade and national security.

Best of all, the damned thing is fun to drive.

Yet, according to Edmunds.com, owners have been booed, reported finding expletives scrawled on their windshields, and even had their tires slashed by vandals. But these aren't your run-of-the-mill hooligans, these are politically-incited sociopaths who take out their anger and frustration on owners of Chevrolet Volts, a car that the extreme rightwing of the Republican Party see as an expression of all that is evil, corrupt, and worst of all, 'socialist' in the Obama Administration.

First a little history about the Volt. In the Spring of 2006, while on a press trip sponsored by General Motors, a member of the GM media relations team intimated to me, "Bill, the electric car isn't dead at GM." George W. Bush was in his second term in office, things weren't going well in Iraq, a massive housing bubble was building, and GM was smarting from the success of Chris Paine's 'Who Killed the Electric Car?,' which proved a wildly successful documentary. A few months later, at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, GM co-chair Bob Lutz debuted the Volt concept car, a project largely inspired by the success of the Tesla Roadster out in Silicon Valley.

General Motors has a long tradition of, from time-to-time, rolling out electric concept cars dating back to the 1960s. They never went anywhere until the debut of the AeroVironment designed Impact -- later renamed the EV1 -- at the 1990 Los Angeles Auto Show. Comments by GM management seemed to suggest that the company would be willing to put the car into production, which a few months later resulted in the creation in California of tough new vehicle emission standards that included a ZEV mandate. Eventually some 1,200 or so EV1s were built, leased mainly in California and subsequently recalled and crushed.

GM management wasn't interested in building another all-electric car. Instead they needed something that solved the range problem, but wasn't just a copy of the Prius. At Jon Lauckner's urging, GM engineers developed the Voltec series hybrid propulsion system, the aim of which was to give drivers a 40-mile electric driving range, after which the gasoline engine generator would kick in and keep the 16kWh lithium battery pack charged and the car moving for another 300 miles. The 40 miles target was chosen because that covers the average daily commuting distance of some 85 percent of drivers in the USA. In theory, a Volt owner could drive weeks on end and never use a drop of gasoline. Theory has now proven fact with many Volt drivers going literally months before refueling with gasoline.

The Volt concept was so well-received that within months of its debut, GM announced it would put the car into development with a promised launch date of late 2010.

Then the housing bubble burst and the global economy crashed, quickly plummeting towards Great Depression levels of joblessness. People stopped buying cars and all three U.S. automakers found themselves teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, and with it a significant portion of the U.S. economy from parts suppliers to dealerships. The ripple effect could have sent the nation over a financial cliff.

In the midst of this, there was a change of occupancy in the White House: Barack Obama became president and inherited the worst economy since Franklin Roosevelt. The rest is history, of course, but one of the consequences of the decisions he made, was the politicization of the a car that all American's should have been proud of. Instead, it became a political punching bag for the far right. Its $40K price tag, $7,500 federal tax credit, and a couple fires during crash tests, only fanned the flames of political discontent.

The situation climaxed during the trio of presidential debates when Republican challenger Mitt Romney specifically called two advanced vehicle manufacturers who had received federal loans: Fisker Automotive and Tesla Motors, "losers." Romney was also critical of the bailout of General Motors and Chrysler, though it was subsequently alleged that the Romney's, through their investments, made millions of dollars off the bailout.

On November 6th, American voters largely vindicated President Obama's decisions that forced the restructuring the auto industry and encouraged the development to new, more fuel efficient vehicles. One of the cars -- the Tesla Model S -- that Mr. Romney called a loser just made history by becoming the first all-electric car to be chosen by Motor Trend as its Car of the Year. And while Tesla and Fisker aren't out of the financial woods yet, there are encouraging signs that the worst of their start-up trials and travails may now be behind them.

As for the Chevy Volt, its sales continue to climb, having its best month so far with 2,961 units sold in October. It also should be noted that this is one of the first cars built in Detroit in a very long time that is actually being exported overseas to Europe, Australia and Asia. Its groundbreaking drive system will next be found in the stylish new Cadillac ELR. Since Mrs. Romney drives a couple Cadillacs, who knows, maybe she'll someday replace one with an ELR. Let's hope that by then, Americans disappointed by the outcome of the 2012 election will have gotten over their pique and see these cars as they really are: world-leading American engineering, design, and manufacturing at its very finest.

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