Back in the 1990s, GM killed the electric car. But in 2011, it brought it back again with the Chevy Volt, selling more than 150,000 units over the past seven years, making it one of the best-selling plug-in hybrids on the market. The Volt perhaps doesn’t get enough credit for its political and technological significance.
Now, the Volt is sentenced to death in March 2019 as part of GM’s massive restructuring that will cut more than 14,000 salaried staff and factory workers and close seven factories worldwide by the end of next year. In addition to the Volt, the company also plans to jettison the Buick LaCrosse, Chevrolet Impala, and Cadillac CT6 sedans. President Trump lashed out at GM over the closures and threatened to impose new car tariffs on imports from China.
The Volt has always been a political football. In 2012, President Obama promised to buy one when he left office, and talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh repeatedly bashed both Obama and GM for the Volt, saying that “nobody wants it” and criticizing the $7,500 federal EV tax credit.
Though the Volt’s sales numbers fell short of the original projections, it was hardly a failure. In 2011, its sales goal was 10,000, but Chevy only sold 7,671. Deliveries eventually grew to more than 20,000 units per year in both 2016 and 2017, putting the Volt on par with what Porsche has predicted for sales of its upcoming Taycan electric car. For the Volt, which received so much attention when it launched, it’s natural that its boosters would claim every sale as a victory, while nothing would satisfy those who think of it as a “Government Motors” boondoggle.
I bought a second-generation Volt in 2016, and before it was totaled in a crash (there were no serious injuries), my then-wife and I put more than 18,000 all-electric miles on the car, with just shy of 2,000 gasoline miles on the clock. The technology in the car is astonishing. We hardly noticed the switchover between electric and gasoline propulsion. Unlike Teslas, which run on electricity alone, the Volt is a “plug-in hybrid” that has a smaller battery pack, but it also packs a gasoline engine that starts up when the battery runs out of juice.
The Volt does this really, really well. And, unlike full-electric vehicles, it’s easy to loan to people who are unfamiliar with the quirks of electric cars. If you like, you can drive it like a normal car and never plug it in at all. But with some minor behavior changes — like plugging it in at night to charge up the battery — you can save money and the environment.
The rated range of 53 miles for a full charge of electricity held up, allowing my wife to drive her 50-mile round trip commute entirely on electricity. But even if the range had been shorter, the Volt’s hybrid status eliminates that electric car range anxiety because she could have stopped at a gas station in a pinch.
So why kill it? The Volt is a sedan, and demand for four-door cars has been falling marketwide. This is probably the primary driver of the Volt’s cancellation. Earlier this year, Ford said it would be discontinuing most of its car lineup in favor of trucks and crossovers, and GM is doing something similar.
But my experience with the Volt convinced me that plug-in hybrids are the major stepping stone for owners between traditional gas-powered cars and full EVs like the Tesla Model 3. Most major carmakers have released plug-in hybrids like the Volt (or soon will), showing what a trailblazer it really was. It’s been rumored for more than a year that Chevrolet is working on a plug-in crossover replacement for the Volt, which is more in line with market trends than a four-seater sedan.
But there was one other big hitch with the Volt: the way they were sold. When my wife and I were planning to buy one, we started at our local Chevrolet dealer, which had several on the lot. When we arrived, the first thing our salesperson tried to do after we told him we wanted to test it out was... try to talk us out of it.
Why deter us from buying a car we knew we wanted? This puzzled me for months, but eventually, I figured it out: for a salesperson (commissioned or not), time is money. He could tell us everything we needed to know about the Chevy Equinox or the Malibu in under 10 minutes. The Volt (and the Bolt EV, which launched later), are much more complicated to explain, taking up more time. And other than Tesla, which eschews the dealer model in favor of its own if-Apple-sold-cars-this-is-how-it-would-look retail stores, no carmaker has been able to crack the code on how to sell the damn things.
The Volt getting canceled isn’t great news for electric car enthusiasts. But, with 150,000 on the road, most of them owned by EV evangelicals who are happy to explain how great they are, the Volt will continue to push the market forward for years to come. And for GM, it provided an invaluable R&D test-bed for its future electric car efforts.
The Volt is dead. Long live the Volt.