Volt charges up General Motors

The electric car won't be a huge seller, but it's exactly the kind of vehicle GM wants to be known for.

By Kim Peterson Jan 10, 2011 2:16PM
Chevrolet Volt (© ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)The Chevrolet Volt was named Car of the Year today at the Detroit auto show.

That's a big honor for an electric car that most Americans can't even find at a dealership. And a car that won't have much of an impact on General Motors' (GM) bottom line. In fact, it's a drain on profits.

But the Volt is hugely important to GM -- central to the comeback the automaker has been engineering since it went bankrupt in 2009. It won't be a huge seller, but the Volt says everything about the kind of company GM wants to be.  

For years, GM took a back seat to Toyota and others when it came to innovation. GM was considered predictable, rigid and weighed down by tradition. It didn't push the envelope; it didn't need to.

And that sentiment drove executives crazy. When retired vice chairman Bob Lutz heard about Tesla Motors (TSLA) building an electric sports car, "I nearly blew my cork," he told the Detroit Free Press.

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And Toyota (TM) got great mileage out of its Prius, using that hybrid to increase all of its sales.

"I said, 'I'm sick and tired of Toyota basking in the glory of being the world's most environmentally sensitive automotive company,'" Lutz told the Free Press. "I said, 'The only way to stop it is to put something out there.'"

That's where the Volt, which went on sale last month, comes in. Even though GM plans to build only 10,000 of them this year (that should go to 45,000 in 2012, the Free Press reports), the automaker is counting on the Volt to help improve its image.

"When you've got a reputation that's heading in the wrong direction, you've got to come up with a kind of signal that pulls everyone over to what you want people to believe about you," Lutz said, according to the Free Press.

Getting the Volt named as Car of the Year is another win for GM, which is still riding high on the success of its November initial public offering. That IPO took the government's stake in the company down to 26.5% from 61%.

The Volt is already a favorite of GM's new chief executive, Dan Akerson. The new boss, who admits he's "not a car guy," takes a bet-the-company approach to products that can make a marketing splash, The Wall Street Journal reports. The Volt is exactly that. Akerson is also emphasizing the OnStar emergency help service.

Right now, the Volt is only on sale in California; New York City; Washington, D.C.; and Austin. It should expand to five states this spring, the Free Press reports.

Will America love an electric car like the Volt? Who knows. But the investment is already producing returns for GM, grabbing rewards and attention and sprucing up an image badly in need of work.

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2Comments
Jan 12, 2011 5:15PM
avatar
Yeah, willieN.  I wouldn't put too much stock in the word of a guy that can't even spell Edsel.  You're probably an irrational domestic hater.  Anyhoo......

The Prius is a joke.  Never mind Toyotas tanking quality, this thing is the biggest farce in auto history.  If you trade away an older car and buy a Prius you would have to drive the Prius for somewhere between 15-20 years to make your money back.  Not only that but simply buying a NEW car costs more in energy and resources than driving the old one into the ground saves.  You'd be better off buying a used diesel car.  The Prius is for ignorant, wanna be environmentalists that think it's ok to criticize everyone who doesn't agree with their BS while actually creating more waste than they save.

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