Chevrolet Volt: The Big Lie?

By Charles Krome

According to my handy-dandy New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary—and by “shorter,” they mean it comes in just two volumes, as opposed to the 20 that make up the full OED—a “coupé” is “an enclosed two-door motor car.” Yet Mercedes insists on marketing the CLS-Class as a “four-door coupe”—does that mean the folks at M-B are lying?

I bring this up because of the recent hubbub over the Chevrolet Volt: It turns out that under certain, relatively uncommon circumstances, the car’s 1.3-liter internal combustion engine will actually contribute some amount of mechanical driving force to its wheels. And if that doesn’t seem like a big deal to you, you either haven’t been paying attention to the automotive blogosphere or you need to update your membership in the Official He-Man GM-Haters’ Club.

The deal here is that in the past, GM had claimed the Volt’s gas engine would never directly power the car; it would only generate electricity, which would then be used to run the vehicle. But now we know that was a lie. And worse, this lie changes the claim that the Volt is a “real” electric vehicle into another, bigger lie, because—if you want to pick nits here—a “real” EV gets its motivating force solely, only and completely from electricity.  In other words, the Volt is a mere plug-in hybrid.

The party line from GM is that its execs had to be somewhat misleading about how the Volt works in order to protect the company’s pending patents, and now all the details can come out since the General’s intellectual property rights have been sewn up. But a significant number of people are seriously angry with GM, both about the lie and the “fact” that the Volt is not strictly an electric vehicle.

There’s a poll about the situation over at Autoblog, for example, and as of 2:36 this afternoon, 54.3 percent of the respondents said GM lied about the Volt being an EV and only 11 percent claimed the car was still “fundamentally” an electric vehicle. The other 34.6 percent said it didn’t make a difference, as long as the net result was a more efficient product, which does happen to be the case. But let’s face it, that last group is essentially saying that yes, GM did lie, but it doesn’t matter.

Clearly, what the vehicle is called shouldn’t matter at all, as long as it does what it’s supposed to do: Provide up to 50 miles of electric driving on a single charge, backed up by the ability to continue for another 260 miles or so by leveraging its gas engine.

But the PR hit GM is taking could be a major setback to the company’s future. Some people will no doubt cross the Volt off their consideration lists because it’s not a “real” EV like the Nissan Leaf or the coming Ford Focus Electric. Others will be turned off by GM’s dishonesty per se. The smarter thing would have been to tell the truth up front and still call the Volt an electric vehicle: As with four-door Mercedes coupes, unibody Ford SUVs and station-wagoned Audi Avants, customers don’t mind a little creative marketing if it makes them feel better about what they’re buying.

But they aren’t too keen on being lied to, especially when they’re footing the bill.

Author: Charles Krome

Charles Krome is a long-time automotive journalist who spent more than 10 years on the inside at General Motors and Ford, and also has corporate communications experience with Audi, Porsche and BASF Automotive Refinish. As a big motorsports fan growing up in the Detroit area, Krome was lucky enough to be able to attend numerous NASCAR, Indy car, F1 and SCCA events while still in his formative years. This, combined with a childhood that included significant (passenger) seat time in cars from Lotus and Jensen Healey, made him a car guy at an earlier age. Today, he lives in metro Detroit with his car wife, raising car kids.

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5 Comments

  1. GM’s PR is taking a hit because people like you continue to make it an issue. Volt is everything we’ve been conditioned to expect from an electric car, but more. This could very well be one of the most important vehicles of our generation and it’s released to people picking nits about semantics. Sounds to me like your He-Man GM Haters Club dues are paid in full.

  2. Ouch!

    It’s funny, because I actually worked for GM for 10 years and consider myself a big supporter. It’s just that the company has a way of shooting itself in its metaphorical foot.

    And with this Volt situation, I certainly didn’t mean to imply there was anything wrong with the car. My opinion about controversy, as I wrote in the story, is that “Clearly, what the vehicle is called shouldn’t matter at all, as long as it does what it’s supposed to do.”

    But the facts here are that GM mishandled communications about the Volt’s powertrain, some people do consider this to be a lie, and it is and will be an issue for the General.

  3. It is not surprising to me that Gm has been misleading. The government is typically misleading, and now that Gm is a government-controlled entity, it follows that they are not entirely truthful. And the car is overpriced. But to the feds, it is like paying $400 for a hammer or a toilet seat.

  4. “That which we call a rose By any other name would smell as sweet.”

  5. This issue is getting to be a bit like tea party movement against the incumbent! Since GM is helped by the government, therefore, every little opportunity should be taken to discredit GM. I bet 90% of people have no clue about what EV is, what hybrid is and what plug in means. I fully agree with people who look at the bottom line numbers and judge the car based on its actual performance under their own typical driving condition.

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