General Motors today took what it hopes is a big step toward keeping the Chevrolet Volt brand on track, announcing its promised "quick fix" to a design flaw that led some of the car's battery packs to catch fire days or weeks after they were damaged in government safety tests.
The move comes just weeks after the problem led to a federal investigation, its relative speediness testifying to the tremendous long-term importance that has been attached to the success of Volt, a so-called plug-in hybrid that can be powered entirely either by its battery pack or by a small gasoline engine, a significant wrinkle compared with electric-only vehicles such as the Nissan Leaf.
GM is adding a tamper-resistant bracket to the top of the battery coolant reservoir to prevent potential coolant overfill, to "further protect" the battery against the kinds of damage in question. The company noted that Volt remains a Top Safety Pick by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, and executives have remarked that Volt is as safe as any other vehicle. Today's announcement was aimed at going "the extra mile to ensure our customers' peace of mind," said Mary Barra, GM's vice president of global product development.
Volt could use some steadying. The nameplate sold 1,529 units in December, its best month, but many of those were sales to commercial fleets, not retail customers, Alan Batey, head of the Chevrolet division, told journalists. And total sales of fewer than 7,700 Volts for the year fell far short of GM's projection of 10,000 sales in the car's first year.
"Still, we had our best retail sales [of Volt] for the year," Batey added. "There has been some uncertainty in the market, but I believe the uncertainty will go away... We're eager to get demo models [to dealers] across the nation and to be able to demonstrate the technology to our customers."
GM's timing of the Volt-fix announcement in part could be aimed at effectively clearing away the Volt "problem" before next week, when thousands of automotive journalists from around the world will descend on Detroit for the press preview of the North American International Auto Show. Naturally, GM would much rather talk about its new models and concept vehicles being featured at the show than the troubles of a "game-changing" EV that it introduced as a concept at the same show five years ago.