General Motors hyped the original Chevrolet Volt as a world-beating car. Its development took years and was rumored to cost about $1 billion. We were told to expect an all-electric family car that would leapfrog the competition. Instead we got a four-seater hybrid that... didn’t. So what happened?
My memories of the Volt start way back. I interned at the Plug In Hybrid Research Center at the Institute of Transportation Studies in the summer of 2008. It was a weird couple of months, which did include me talking the ear off of some early Tesla engineer about the upcoming sedan the company had just announced but not revealed. Make it the dimensions of the 1955 Chevrolet, I intoned. Every few years, a company comes out with a new sedan that’s that size and Americans love it, then the car gets bigger and bigger until the company downsizes again to those dimensions and it’s a hit again.
I was not fun at parties.
Anyway, it was a different time, one where the EV market looked wide open, and everyone was looking forward to the much-hyped return of GM into the segment. GM was an absolute giant, and people wondered if it would completely squash startups like Tesla.
Also in that summer, I remember talking about upcoming plug-in cars expected to hit the market, like a plug-in Prius and what eventually came out as the Tesla Model S. The professor I was talking with left out GM. “What about the Volt,” I asked. “Yeah,” was the answer I got. “If they ever figure it out.”
As it so happened, battery testing took years. GM showed off what the production car would look like later in 2008, but it didn’t actually start building and selling the things towards the end of 2010, slowed in part by the recession and bailout.
Even then, the Volt wasn’t a range-extended EV as we had been told to expect, but a pretty normal plug-in hybrid. There was a big to-do over whether the gasoline engine actually drove the wheels or not, and it does. Yet GM was adamant that it was a real EV even when it came out, claiming that while it was in EV mode it counted as one. Also it pissed off everybody by claiming it got 230 MPG, though it dialed that back as not “overly descriptive” once the car was actually in driveways.
Also it only had four seats, because GM decided to make the battery in the shape of a giant T. And it started at $41,000, presumably to recoup the costs of that lengthy development.
Also, that drivetrain never got spread around past the Volt, other than the two-door Cadillac ELR version and the Euro/UK Opel/Vauxhall Ampera re-skins. There was a concept of a minivan, but that never made it. Bizarre! Probably would have been a better shot at the market than a high-priced five-door hatchback.
The question that hangs over it is, what went wrong? So much time and money got poured into the Volt. It was at the right time, too. There’s a sizable contingent of Volt owners who absolutely love the cars. We hear from them from time to time.
But it ended up being the wrong car, expensive, with no groundbreaking specs. Those who bought the thing loved it, but it never sold like the Prius (or even the Leaf, at first) or caught attention like a Tesla.
We can only extrapolate so much from the outside. What we would love to hear are stories from working on the car, helping develop it in those wildcat days of 2007-2010. It had so much promise. What went wrong?
We have a handy guide on how to contact us as securely and as anonymously as possible, though you are always also welcome to email me here at raphael at jalopnik dot com.