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This Concept Car Could Have Been a Treasure for GM, But the Production Model Came Too Late
The Volt could have been a life savior for General Motors, but it became a burden when the world financial crisis struck, and GM's execs preferred to play it safe. Maybe too safe.

This Concept Car Could Have Been a Treasure for GM, But the Production Model Came Too Late

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GM tried to make a difference on the market when it unveiled the Chevrolet Volt concept car in 2007 at the North American International Motor Show in Detroit. On its home ground, it surprised its competitors. Remember, folks, in those times, a plug-in hybrid was something out of this world. People didn't even care too much about gas price either. We all lived in an economic bubble that burst in the autumn of the same year.

Today we continue our journey through the Concept to Reality series with this duo: Volt vs. Volt. What GM had in mind was so daring that even nowadays looks impressive. It was the kind of electrified vehicle that could have solved many people's commute costs. In some ways, it did. But in those times, it was too expensive.

Larry Burns, GM's vice president for research and development, said at the Volt's concept car launch that "Whether your concern is energy security, global climate change, natural disasters, the high price of gas, the volatile pricing of a barrel of oil and the effect that unpredictability has on Wall Street – all of these issues point to a need of energy diversity." He really nailed it!

The Volt prototype looked impressive. Its Transformers-inspired front fascia and the greenhouse's jet-fighter look were complemented by a short rear end. In addition, its doors featured an unusual design, with the window line lower than the rearview mirrors. By its look, it could have been a threat to Dodge Viper!

Inside, the light-beige and pale-blue ambiance lights created a warm and welcoming place. The flat-bottom steering wheel was inspired by motorsports, even though the Volt was an eco-vehicle and not a sports car. The panoramic glass roof was not something unseen on the market. Yet, it was a nice addition to the concept car.

The 2007 Volt featured an electric motor, a battery pack, and a 1.0-liter turbocharged engine. Burns said, "with our new E-flex concept, we can produce electricity from gasoline, ethanol, bio-diesel, or hydrogen." The idea behind that project was to create a vehicle to run on full-electric mode for about 40 miles (64 km). Bob Lutz, GM's CEO, said, "More than half of all Americans live within around 30 km of where they work (60 km round trip). In that case, you might never burn a drop of gas during the life of the car."

But then, the world financial crisis struck. GM had to shrink its lineup and desperately tried to save its European branch (Opel/Vauxhall) from bankruptcy. Somehow it managed to keep it away from the prying eyes of a Russian consortium, making Vladimir Putin mad for that.

The production model Volt was unveiled in 2008 in GM's Wintergarden in Detroit. Yet, deliveries started all the way in December 2010, as a 2011 model year. Meanwhile, in 2009, GM invited journalists to test the vehicle. I attended one of their events and, when I saw the car, I was slightly confused. Where were the unusual doors? Where was the short rear deck, and, most importantly, where was the glass roof? Even Vauxhall/Opel Astra had them in Europe, and that was a way cheaper vehicle.

The production version was a regular hatchback look with a sloped (fastback-style) tailgate. Sure, it had a short rear overhang, but the overall design lost the prototype's appeal. The concept and the production versions looked like siblings, but not closely related.

Inside, there was another unpleasant experience. Sure, the five-seat layout was more of a four-seat. Still, the rear bench was suitable for three kids. But the real problem was with the materials. They looked and felt terrible.

Last but not least, the rear vinyl cover that concealed the trunk area was flimsy and not even retractable. You had to lift it and hang it on other hinges. That was totally not a $40,000 vehicle. As for the leatherette upholstery, well, I've seen better table cloths at Safeway!

Driving it was a pleasant experience. It could run on electricity alone if you were not in a hurry. The real-world range was shorter than advertised, but it was okay. Its naturally aspirated 1.4-liter gasoline engine ran smoothly. Honestly, the 2011 Chevrolet Volt was off to a good start. But GM started deliveries in December 2010, so some potential buyers were already lost to Toyota's Prius, while others just looked to other brands.

Then came the final hit: it was not an electric car with a range extender. Instead, the engine sent power to the wheels via a series of clutches through the generator in certain circumstances. After discovering that situation, the car was no longer eligible for electric-car incentives, and was dropped in the hybrid-car section.

Unfortunately, GM had a significant chance of changing its future, but it failed. The production version was far from what Chevrolet promised with the Volt. Maybe some bean counters decided to cut production costs and increase the vehicle price. We'll never know, since GM's lips are tight. They couldn't understand that buyers needed to feel what will they get with that steep price, not only feel it at the gas pump. After all, they paid 40 grand for a car; they didn't care if the gallon of premium unleaded was $2.90 or $3.53.

 
 
 
 
 

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