I have a confession to make. With more than two decades of covering the auto industry, reviewing cars and trucks and attending any number of races, I simply do not care that much about horsepower and speed.
There it is. Call me a wuss, a tofu lover, or a lightweight, but I have never been bowled over by V8 engines. They always seem like too much to me, too much gasoline consumed for my needs. I do admit that the throaty lusty sound of a growling Mustang GT or Challenger SRT is fun to take out on the open road a few times a year. But a V8 for everyday driving does nothing for me.
No, the biggest grin I have had in the last several years has been with the Chevy Volt. In this, though, I feel I am in the minority inside my profession. Sure, the alfalfa sprout-eaters are interested in any hybrid car. But when I confess to my comrades my geeky delight in leaving my house with a full charge, and then recharging the car when I get to work at the nearby ChargePoint station (until my office installs a dedicated charger in our parking garage), I feel as if I have just ordered "just a salad" in a steakhouse after my friends have all ordered T-Bones.
But it turns out I'm not alone. At the recent screening of Chris Paine's "Revenge of the Electric Car," playing in Ann Arbor, Royal Oak and Detroit this month, Pulitzer Prize-winning auto writer Dan Neil confessed to losing his enthusiasm for the internal combustion engine. Inside my head, I uttered, "Comrade!" It's not that we don't recognize the present and future of the ICE, but what really gets us excited are breakthroughs with batteries; driving without gas as much as we can.
The Volt has a small but growing following. But tune into Fox News, CNBC or right-wing talk radio, and one could confuse the visceral hatred of the car with a tax hike or President Obama's campaign bus. It's downright hostile.
Former General Motors vice chairman and current consultant Bob Lutz, a rock-ribbed conservative himself, believes the hostility comes from an association between hybrids and EVs with liberals, conservative hatred for tax credits used to buy certain cars over others, and ignorance on the part of popular right-wingers like Rush Limbaugh and Fox News' Sean Hannity. Lutz says that the right-wing personalities he listens to have remained impenetrable in thinking that GM is only building the Volt because it was a condition of the Obama White House-led, taxpayer financed bailout of the auto industry. Lutz has told Limbaugh via email the argument is nonsense, and that the Volt was in development long before the 2008-09 financial meltdown.
For anyone in the dark, the Volt is an extended range electric vehicle that will take a driver 35-40 miles on a charge. When the battery runs out, a gas-fed motor kicks in to power the battery, thus eliminating the fear that one will run out of power in the middle of nowhere. By Lutz's own admission, his motivation in pushing the Volt after GM had blown in excess of $1 billion on the EV-1 (The subject of "Who Killed The Electric Car," Chris Paine's earlier documentary) in the 1990s, was to leapfrog Toyota in hybrid and EV technology.
I think Lutz is correct in his assessment of why many are downright hostile toward the Volt. It's too expensive, costing around $40,000. Tax credits of all kinds are under the microscope these days. The auto bailout was unpopular, even with the half of Michiganders who benefit the most from the deal that saved GM and Chrysler. But consider that a BMW exevutive told me that the companies engineers were surprised GM offered the Volt as a Chevy. "We thought it was superior, and should have been offered as a Cadillac," they said.
This is anecdotal, but I also just think the U.S. has a stubborn culture that resists things that are good for us as a whole. Cutting out smoking in public spaces. Posting calories on menu boards at restaurants. Junk food taxes to make unhealthy food more expensive. Seatbelt laws. Motorcycle helmet laws. America hates social re-engineering and government-led measures that benefit all. We don't like to eat our peas.
It was unfortunate that the day "Revenge of the Electric Car" debuted in Michigan there was a report of a Volt battery catching fire following safety test-crash at the National Highway Safety Administration. That event will get more scrutiny and echo in the conservative press than any other recall or engineering glitch. It's almost as if the Volt is running for office in an election year, along with President Obama.
Charging up the Volt at home is as easy as plugging in when I put the car away at night. As I drive from my home in Ann Arbor to Birmingham, I run out of charge right around the intersection of I-275 and I-696. But when I get to my new parking space equipped with an electric outlet, I recharge for the drive home. That roughly 100 mile round trip only uses gas for 30 of the miles. That's a breakthrough.
And within 10 years, I'm willing to bet I can drive the whole trip on electricity with no fear of running out of juice or even tapping the gas engine.
If the Volt is on the ballot in 2012, I'm voting YES.
Grand Blvd. is a weekly column about cars from David Kiley. For more of his writing, and everything about cars, head over to AOL Autos.
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