Jonathan Cohn

Rush Limbaugh v. the Volt

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The Chevrolet Volt was supposed to symbolize the resurgence of America's car industry while fostering energy independence. But when General Motors announced last week that the electric car's sticker price will be $41,000, critics pounced.

Edward Niedermeyer, editor of the website The Truth About Cars, wrote an op-ed for the New York Times called "G.M.'s Electric Lemon." The Volt, Niedermeyer said, had poor styling and performance--and compared unfavorably with the Leaf, the plug-in alternative that Nissan is introducing.

Rush Limbaugh went on his radio show and put it more succinctly: "Nobody wants it," he said.

To both men, the Volt's high price is proof that the federal government, which oversees GM as part of last year's bankruptcy deal, has steered the troubled company into even deeper trouble. I'm sure many other people are inclined to agree. The Volt, in this view, is a boondoggle that no sensible company would have developed into a product if the government, determined to push fuel-efficient technology, hadn't forced it to do so.

As some of you know, I was a vocal advocate for the rescue of Chrysler and GM, including the emphasis on fuel efficiency. Sometime soon, I'll have a lot more to say on whether I think history has vindicated that judgment. (E.J. Dionne, who also supported the rescue, thinks it has.) For now, though, I want to focus on the Volt--and why I think these criticisms are unfair.

The Volt is a new kind of vehicle. When you drive a conventional hybrid, such as the Toyota Prius, the car is constantly switching back and forth between electric and gasoline power. When you drive a Volt, the car draws exclusively on electric power until the battery is depleted. Only then does the car switch over to gas. Under normal driving conditions, you could go about 40 miles on the battery alone.

You can recharge the battery at home overnight, or in just a few hours if you have the right equipment, so that the car is ready to go on electric power again the next day. If you're using your car only for short drives, like a quick commute to and from work, it's theoretically possible you'd never use a drop of gasoline. Even now, the EPA isn't certain how to calculate the Volt's mileage.

None of this is in dispute. What's in dispute is whether the Volt is a good car, and worth the price, particularly since Nissan's Leaf costs $8,000 less. But the Leaf doesn't have a gasoline engine; it has only the electric battery. It has a longer range than the Volt battery--about 100 miles instead of 40 miles--but there's no backup. If you run out of juice, somewhere on the road, you'll be stuck. “The Leaf is a second or third car,” Jesse Toprak, vice president for vehicle trends and insights at TrueCar.com, told the Times in a separate news article. “The Volt can replace your existing commuter car or even your family car, if you don’t have a big family, and do just fine.”

Of course, the $41,000 sticker price is still high, even when you knock off $7,500 in a federal tax credit. (That brings the actual price to $33,500.) But that figure is misleading in a few respects. GM is offering three year leases of the vehicle at $350. That's the same as the lease rate on Leaf and it is competitive with many other cars.

Also, this is merely the first generation Volt, not to mention GM's first entry into the electric car market. "This is really the tip of the spear," says Kristin Dziczek, from the Center for Automotive Research. Dziczek notes that all the carmakers have to invest in electric cars in order to hit future targets for emissions. And, as Marcy Wheeler notes over at her blog, Emptywheel, it took Toyota a little while to get the Prius just right.

Not that the Volt is a deeply flawed vehicle. Far from it. Everybody is entitled to an opinion and Niedermeyer, surely, knows more about cars than I do. But Limbaugh's and Niedermeyer's assessments of the Volt are far from universal. Consumer Reports gave the Volt a test drive last month and liked what it saw. (See video below.) So have some other test drivers.

One last note: It's a mistake to assume that GM's future in small cars depends on the success of the Volt. Far more important is the Volt's fraternal twin, the Cruze, which has only the gasoline engine but still gets 40 miles to the gallon. With a sticker price that starts at $17,000, it has appeal that goes well beyond the upscale market. And the reviews so far have been strong.

Could the Volt still turn into a boondoggle? Absolutely. But, right now, it's wrong to assume it will be.

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