Conservatives love to hate the Chevy Volt. The plug-in advanced hybrid car seems to annoy Republicans, Tea Partiers and Libertarians alike.
Then this week, one conservative went rogue. Lee Spieckerman, owner of SpieckermanMedia in Fort Worth, Texas, went on Fox News to say the Volt could be an important tool in boosting U.S. energy production and foreign policy efforts.
"There are probably 10 inventions over the past 150 years that were life changing for Americans, and I think the Volt has the potential to be one of those things," he told The Huffington Post. "I mean, a car that runs on American electricity derived from American sources. What will those crazy lefties think of next?"
He joined a wave of backlash within conservative groups against those in their political party who despise the Chevy Volt because of its perceived ties to President Barack Obama. The pushback started with a column a few weeks ago in Forbes magazine written by former General Motors board member and climate-change denier Bob Lutz, who said, "I am, sadly, coming to the conclusion that all the icons of conservatism are ... deliberately not telling the truth."
But it may be too late to save the Volt's image: Sales have been disappointing, selling just 7,671 in 2011, shy of its 10,000 goal. Many have argued that the Volt's sticker price is too high, but the constant hammering of negativity from the political right surely can't be helping sales. Disappointing sales figures prompted GM to close the Volt plant in Hamtramck, Mich., for five weeks starting in mid March. And a major auto industry conference on electric cars was canceled Wednesday due to lack of interest.
To many who've driven the car -- which, thanks to its advanced hybrid system, goes 40 miles on battery power before a gas engine kicks in -- conservatives' passionate dislike is puzzling. The car won both U.S. and European car of the year awards. It looks sleek and modern. Critics say it's fun to drive and it uses just a tiny amount of gas.
Angered by the $60 billion the government invested in GM to keep it from collapsing in 2009, some conservatives say they see the Volt as a symbol of policies they don't agree with being pushed on Americans.
You only have to take a look at Fox News to see how much disdain there is for GM's hybrid sedan. Lutz said he heard one Fox commentator call it an "exploding Obamamobile." The station aired a segment that claimed it ran out of power in the Lincoln Tunnel (it kicked over to gas power during the commute, as it's designed to do), and has said again and again that the car doesn't work, isn't worth the money, and costs taxpayers $250,000 per car in government subsidies.
Spieckerman, a lifelong conservative and sometimes commentator on Fox News, said he kept hearing this message about the Volt being the worst car on the road, and just couldn't take it anymore. He called producers at Fox News and asked if he could have some time on air defending the car. He wanted to explain why the car, and other cars like it, could actually advance many conservative ideals, like energy independence.
He appeared Monday, starting off his appearance telling viewers he loves oil and is a "drill baby drill guy." But then he said conservatives are twisting the facts, making it seem like a debacle when electric cars could really be considered a technology as cool as the iPod.
When the Volt is powered by the battery, the car is often running on American-made coal-powered electricity, he said. What's wrong with that?
Although his message caused a bit of a dust-up, resulting in dozens of news stories and blog posts pointing out how Fox News is now contradicting itself, he's planning on sending it again and again.
"I'll shout it from the rooftop of my house if I have to," Spieckerman told The Huffington Post. "I'll go anywhere to pound this message, because I think it's really important."
Spieckerman said he believes electric cars and plug-in hybrids like the Chevy Volt are vital to the nation's future, allowing the country to wean itself off oil and use homegrown fuel sources like coal, nuclear and natural gas to power electricity plants, which then would power cars. If you could do that while also expanding the production of oil in the U.S., he thinks that could even push down gas prices.
But he said he knows why many conservatives hate the Volt: Because Obama likes it.
"Almost anything President Obama and his administration endorses is up for criticism," he said. "But we have to decouple politics from what a great technology this is for America … If the environmentalists and Obama like the Volt, so what? Even a stopped clock is right twice a day."
It might be hard to change conservative minds, especially when the message is already so entrenched. On Wednesday, the Center for Automotive Research canceled its annual industry conference on plug-in cars, saying speakers and other participants said they decided to focus less on networking and more on quietly building their technology behind closed doors.
Brett Smith, co-director of conferences for CAR, said plug-in and electric cars are starting to lose their hype. That's partly because new technology trends in the auto industry are cyclical -- in the past decade, natural gas, ethanol, and electrification have all been hyped as the next big thing, only to quietly fade away.
But people are also losing interest because electric cars have gotten too politicized, he said.
"It went from being a political theme in 2008 to being a political football," he said. "People in the industry now are taking a breath."
And if sales of the Volt don't pick up, could GM discontinue it? "Cars go away, absolutely," Smith said. "That would be, in many ways, disappointing ... But certainly, if a car doesn't sell, it will go away."
GM has been fighting back against some of the criticism, trying to correct the record when it can and launching a blog to fight back against inaccuracies. "It's never easy breaking new ground," said Selim Bingol, GM's head of public relations.
The Volt has had a bumpy start. In late 2011, it faced a safety investigation from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, after one Volt caught fire following a crash test. NHTSA ended the investigation in January, saying the cars aren't at any greater risk of catching fire after a crash than gasoline-powered cars.
But conservatives have grabbed the fire issue and aren't letting go. Ben Howe, a blogger and video producer in South Carolina, latched on to the fires to poke at GM. He recently made a satirical video, voicing over a real Volt commercial, joking that the fire problem makes the cars safer because people want to get out of the way. His parody also said the cars are made in China (even though they're made in Hamtramck, Mich.), and said the car was made in conjunction with the Obama administration.
Howe said he knows all of that's not true. He's well aware that GM started development of the car in 2007, when George W. Bush was president. He knows they're assembled in the U.S. (but he suspects a large number of parts come from China.) And he knows the cars aren't flaming masses screaming down the street, but he's skeptical of the government's investigation.
Mostly, "I just wanted it to be funny," he said. "It's a parody."
To him, the car symbolizes the government overstepping its boundaries, first by bailing out GM and Chrysler, and then by offering tax rebates on the cars to buyers who don't really need any financial help (the average Volt buyer makes more than $170,000 a year but gets $7,500 off the $40,000 sticker price.
"It's a great example of when the government believes they know what the market should be, and then they try to force that to happen," he said. "I'm against government meddling in the markets."
If GM wants the criticism to go away, Howe said the solution is easy: Pay the government back for the bailout.
"When you're on your own dime, do what you want," he said. "If they didn't have the bailout money, I don't think I would have anything to say."
Click on the video below to see Howe's parody of a Volt ad: