President Barack Obama says he wants to buy a Chevy Volt when he’s out of office in five years. If getting into a General Motors electric automobile means so much to him, he’d better hope he loses in November. What the president dubbed the “car of the future” in a visit to a Volt plant may not make it to January 2017.
The partially government-owned General Motors has suspended production of its government-approved miracle car and temporarily laid off 1,300 workers at a Detroit plant. The halt is the result of a piddling detail lost in the gushers of praise for a big, bad car company supposedly learning the error of its environment-destroying ways — people don’t want to buy the damn thing.
GM hoped to sell 10,000 Volts last year and sold only 7,500. It planned to sell 45,000 this year and is scaling back production to meet the real rather than the imaginary demand. The Volt is the Solyndra of automobiles, another Obama-touted recipient of government subsidies that was succeeding as a great paladin of the future in all the speeches and press releases until it ran into hard market realities.
The Volt is too expensive, too small, and too complicated to appeal to all but a tiny slice of what is already a tiny segment of the car market. Hybrids have never been more than about 3 percent of all U.S. sales. To buy a Volt, you need the money to splurge and the exquisite environmental consciousness to think plugging in your car will help save the planet, even though about half of electricity comes from coal. The Volt is as much affectation as car.
It costs more than $40,000. At that price, perhaps GM should have made it part of the Cadillac brand rather than Chevy. Most buyers dropping that much prefer to go all the way and buy something really nice — say, an Audi or a BMW.
According to GM, the average income of a Volt purchaser is $175,000 a year. These well-heeled buyers get a $7,500 tax credit for selecting a car out of reach of many Americans, a trickle-up redistribution toward the upper, politically correct end of the car market.
It’s not that the Volt isn’t a fine piece of machinery. It is a smooth ride and has been well-reviewed. It’s just not going “to make Big Oil sweat,” in the words of a smitten writer for the New York Times. Big Oil presumably has other things to worry about than a rounding error in the more than 12 million vehicles sold in the U.S. every year.
As Henry Payne of the Detroit News argues, the Chevy Volt is basically the electric version of the gas-powered Chevy Cruze. Despite the Environmental Protection Agency’s rating that the Volt gets 60 miles per gallon, as a practical matter it’s more like 35 (it can go less than 40 miles on battery alone and then needs to switch over to gas). That’s comparable to the Cruze, which costs half the amount, has greater range, seats more people, and is easier to operate since all it requires is a visit to the filling station. GM sells more than 200,000 Cruzes a year.
The Volt is looking like Obama’s Edsel. What the president so confidently deems “the future” when he talks of energy and cars is his ideological vision dressed up in the language of historical inevitability. If he had been told in 2009 that the real future of the car market would be trucks, SUVs, and the like, which again ticked above half of sales, he surely would have blanched. If he had been told that technological breakthroughs would bring a future of new oil production, he would have been no less insistent on funding the likes of Solyndra.
For all his smug confidence about his vision of the future, he doesn’t truly know what car he will be driving in five years. If he stays true to his word, it might have to be a secondhand Volt.