How GM "Lied" About The Electric CarS

The Chevy Volt has been hailed as General Motors' electric savior. Now, as GM officially rolls out the Volt this week for public consumption, we're told the much-touted fuel economy was misstated and GM "lied" about the car being all-electric.

In the past, and based on GM's claims, we've gone so far as to call the Volt GM's "Jesus Car." And why wouldn't we call it that? We were told the Volt would achieve 230 MPG fuel economy and would always use the electric drivetrain to motivate the wheels — only using the onboard gasoline engine as a "range extender" for charging the batteries. It now turns out that not only were those fuel economy claims misleading, but the gasoline engine is actually used to motivate the wheels — making the Volt potentially nothing more than a very advanced hybrid car and pushing some automotive journalists like Scott Oldham at Edmunds.com to claim "GM lied to the world" about it.

How GM "Lied" About The Electric CarS

First of all, let's talk about fuel economy. In August of last year, we heard GM's then-CEO Fritz Henderson claimed with all the marketing might it could muster at a Detroit-area press event, that the Chevy Volt would get 230 MPG in city driving conditions. Now, as the Volt's being tested by the auto trade press, we're seeing some surprisingly low fuel economy figures amid the expected lavish praise buff books are heaping upon the Volt.

Let's see what they've found out. Popular Mechanics saw just 37.5 MPG in city driving. Car and Driver apparently didn't choose to use their wheel time for any city driving — but found with all-electric driving

"...getting on the nearest highway and commuting with the 80-mph flow of traffic-basically the worst-case scenario-yielded 26 miles; a fairly spirited back-road loop netted 31; and a carefully modulated cruise below 60 mph pushed the figure into the upper 30s."

Motor Trend, like the rest of the trade press other than Popular Mechanics, didn't appear to do any testing in city conditions, but did find that

"Without any plugging in, [a weeklong trip to Grandma's house] should return fuel economy in the high 30s to low 40s."

They also parrot GM's new line of 25-50 miles of all-electric — a far cry from the 230 MPG they originally marketed — that the "Volt provides 25-50 miles of real-world electric operation no matter how hard you flog it."

But while even providing only 10% of the fuel economy initially touted, these more real-world figures are merely an exaggeration. The bigger problem is that, as Mr. Oldham now claims, is that GM lied to them about the powertrain.

Since the Volt was first unveiled as a concept car, GM engineers, public relations staff and executives have all claimed adamantly that the internal combustion engine did not motivate the wheels. If that were the case then the Volt would be nothing more than a very advanced hybrid. Even as late into the development cycle as this June, we were told the only drivetrain that motivated the wheels was the electric one. The auto trade press swallowed the line, hook and the sinker. Sam Abulesmaid at Autoblog even ran a piece headlined "Repeat after us: The Chevrolet Volt's gas engine does not drive the wheels!." And why shouldn't he have lapped it up when in online chats, the Volt's chief engineer Andrew Farah was saying:

"you're correct that the electric motor is always powering the wheels, whereas in a typical hybrid vehicle the electric motor and the gasoline engine can power the wheels. The greatest advantage of an extended-range electric vehicle like the Volt is the increased all electric range and the significant total vehicle range combined."

This meant that the gasoline engine was nothing more than a "range extender" designed to charge the batteries which would allow the electric drivetrain to continue to move the car — and allow GM to claim that the Volt was something different, something new and something worthy of taxpayer dollars.

It turns out that's not correct. We're now told by Volt's engineering team that when the Volt's lithium-ion battery pack runs down and at speeds near or above 70 mph the Volt's gasoline engine will directly drive the front wheels along with the electric motors.

That means that for all of the all-electric or extended-range electric vehicle (EREV) hype GM's imbuing in the Volt, it's really nothing more than a plug-in hybrid vehicle. A very advanced plug-in hybrid, but a hybrid nonetheless.

That's enough for Mr. Oldham to claim GM lied to the world and to then go ahead and endorse (via a retweet on Twitter) the all-electric Nissan Leaf (full disclosure — Mr. Oldham's brother works for Nissan) as the only choice for an electric car.

It's enough for us to wonder why GM pushed the 230 MPG number in the first place and why they didn't just come clean on the powertrain this summer when asked a straightforward question.