"Who will buy this wonderful morning?" sang the rose seller in the musical Oliver. A similar question about purchase intentions might be asked about the Chevrolet Volt, which is finally being readied for sale. With a $41,000 price tag–well above the originally rumored figures–the answer might be, "not many." A $7,500 federal tax credit offsets that outlay, but the Volt is still far removed from easily-affordable status.
Because Chevrolet intends to make the Volt available for leasing at a more amenable $350 a month, however, the number of potential customers might turn out to be more favorable. Other electric cars, like the MINI E and the forthcoming smart fortwo electric drive, have lease offers; but MINI and smart have much higher monthly payments.
In theory, at least, the car's cost is eased dramatically by its potential fuel economy–but that depends on how it's driven. The Volt runs on electricity alone for the first 40 miles. Then, its gasoline engine starts up to charge the battery. So, if it's seldom driven more than 40 miles before recharging, operating costs (except for the price of electricity) may approach zero.
Financial considerations aside, will it be the "game-changer" that Bob Lutz, then the vice-chairman heading GM's product lineup, promised at Detroit's 2007 North American International Auto Show when the initial version of the Volt was unveiled? That sports-derived term is tossed around by a lot of auto companies these days, but few new products really deserve such an accolade.
In the case of the Volt, Lutz used its Detroit debut to send barbs toward Al Gore, whose award-winning documentary film about global warming had recently opened. GM has "an inconvenient truth" of its own, Lutz chided. Considering that it's taken almost four years for the Volt to get off the ground, the ultimate truth turned out to be a little less factual than stated.
On paper, a 340-mile extended range sounds tempting. Still, the big questions are simple: Will it perform as promised, and will enough environmentally-tuned shoppers be tempted to sign on–especially after the initial seven-state launch. (Fellow contributor Todd Kaho drove a pre-production model in Driving a Chevy Volt Test Mule.)
Late in July, as President Obama toured the Volt plant, GM announced that production will rise from 30,000 to 45,000 units per year, in 2012. Perhaps this time, GM's forward-thinking, fuel-efficient reality will match the dragged-out promise.