Chevy Volt Ready to Recharge

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Don’t expect General Motors CEO Dan Akerson to go meekly back to Flyover Country after his resolute defense of the Chevrolet Volt before Congress last week. His appearance will rank as the high-water mark for the car’s critics, not for the car.

The appeal of Volt to American consumers is poised to begin rising again. There’s a new federal imprimatur on its crash-worthiness. GM will use its new marketing campaign, including on Super Bowl Sunday, to get out a fresh and upbeat message about Volt. And gasoline prices will likely start rising again, at least for seasonal reasons, as spring approaches, meaning that American consumers will be taking a closer look once again at what they shell out at the pump after about a year of relative stability, though at about $3.50 a gallon.[more]

While U.S. car buyers remain uninterested at best in all-electric vehicles and only tepid about hybrids, even after they’ve been pushed in their faces for a decade, Volt still makes more street sense than any of the others. It can get better mileage than regular hybrids because it can operate in all-battery mode. Yet Volt has a huge leg up on its competition to date because it vanquishes “range anxiety” with an onboard small engine.

All of that means as gradually higher numbers of consumers inevitably consider the EV proposition — and Millennials certainly will — they’re likely to trust Volt over others because they know they’ll never be marooned.

Akerson was right when he said that Volt had become “a political punching bag.” Only time will tell if the CEO also was right in his message in some paid print advertisements by GM that Volt is “the most significant step in GM’s history to give customers a choice beyond oil” and a “technological ‘moon shot.'”

Overall in its new Volt marketing campaign, GM certainly takes the gloves off a bit more. Over the last couple of years, most of its ads for Volt have focused on range anxiety and the car’s capabilities, not on the surrounding political or cultural environment. But in its new spot, voiced per Chevy these days by Tim Allen, GM focuses on the actual production of Volt, in its Hamtramck, Mich., plant — “for our town; for our country; for our future.”

In the meantime, congressional critics are likely to begin holstering their fire at Volt after yesterday’s hearing. They may or not be correct in saying that Obama administration footdragging since last summer shielded Volt from attention over the fire concerns until late last year, because of the potential political sensitivities around the government’s bailout of GM.

But that’s largely moot now.

Why? Because most Americans don’t care about that allegation, especially without hard evidence. Because most taxpayers have moved far beyond their initial skepticism about the GM and Chrysler bailouts if only because the companies have recovered nicely and the government will regain most of its investment.

And in Midwestern political swing states like Michigan, where manufacturing employment finally is rising again, most voters don’t want to hear that’s a bad thing because in a free market events would have unfolded differently. Even Mitt Romney doesn’t knock the GM bailout anymore.

Critics are right to point out the huge federal tax break of $7,500 that a buyer gets for purchasing a Volt that is priced at a whopping $40,000: Those amount to subsidies of Obama’s clean-energy fixation, directly out of the pockets of taxpayers, at a time when neither individual taxpayers nor the federal government can afford it — not that there would be a good time.

And for justifiable criticism of Obama’s fixation with “green jobs,” critics have much easier targets. Solyndra is still ripe for the knocking.

Instead of setting a wildly optimistic sales goal and not meeting it as GM did last year, and suffering push-back from frustrated dealers, GM executives finally have gotten realistic about just how quickly Americans will warm up to Volt. Akerson has said that Volt production will be adjusted to market demand, and that likely means making and selling a lot fewer of the cars than the 45,000 initially projected sales for 2012.

In its new TV ad, GM says about Volt, “This isn’t just the car we wanted to build. It’s the car America had to build.”

That’s true in ways most viewers won’t recognize. But it’s one more thing Volt will move past.

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