Just when General Motors executives were hoping they finally had gotten the Chevrolet Volt back on dry pavement, other obstacles have arisen: a mini-mutiny among some Chevy dealers who don't want to be stuck attempting to sell the battered plug-in hybrid brand, and the fact that GM CEO Dan Akerson is geting hauled in front of a congressional committee on Wednesday to testify about Volt.
On Friday, Volt received a clean bill of safety from the federal-government agency that had launched an investigation into some weird post-crash fire problems with Volt's battery, which occurred not on the road but within the testing procedures by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. GM had stepped up uncommonly during the investigation, offering to let Volt owners borrow another GM car and coming up with a safety "fix" even though its engineers belived it redundant in a design that already was safe.
GM is eager to rebuild Volt's tarnished image and get back to addressing more basic problems with Volt, which include not making or selling nearly as many as they had hoped a year ago. On Monday, for example, the automaker announced that Volt owners "may soon get charged with renewable energy" via GM's OnStar unit.
One spanner in GM's Volt image makeover plans: some Chevy dealers are turning down allocations of Volt that GM wants to ship to them, according to Automotive News. In New York, for example, GM allocated 104 Volts to four dealerships, but only 31 were accepted — the lowest "take" rate for any Chevy model in the market that month.
"Thinking we need six more Volts is just crazy," Brett Hedrick, dealer principal at Hedrick's Chevrolet in Clovis, Calif., told Automotive News. "We've never sold more than two in a month."
Dealers are in business to turn the sheetmetal, of course, and Volts just haven't performed in that regard. Last year, the problem GM was having with Chevy dealers is that many of them wanted to sell their last or only Volt to would-be eager buyers, while the factory insisted that they keep at least one Volt in the showroom to serve as a demonstration vehicle for curious potential Volt buyers — and, tacitly stated, to help lure consumers who might end up buying, say, one of the new, popular Chevrolet Cruze small cars.
Meanwhile, Akerson will tell members of the House Oversight and Reform Committee on Wednesday that Volt has received "a disproportionate level of scrutiny" by critics of GM and the Obama administration, according to Automotive News. Volt "seems, perhaps unfairly, to have become a surrogate for some to offer broader commentary on General Motors' business prospects and administration policy," he will testify.
So GM's dealers join the company in entering a first quarter of uncertainty for Volt. Can the car recover its mojo post-investigation? How tarnished is the car's rep for the long term even though the fire issue has been withdrawn by the government? What role is relatively stable gasoline prices playing in the mind of potential Volt purchasers right now? Have all the "early adopters" who want Volt already bought one? And is it possible, depending on all the above, that Volt could become a presidential-campaign issue a la Solyndra?
GM plans to figure out its answers to these questions, its leaders have said, sometime in the second quarter.