The death of the Chevrolet Volt was a quiet one. It came in early December amid news that General Motors was cutting 14,000 jobs, closing three assembly plants, and also ending production of the Chevy Cruze and Impala, the Buick LaCrosse, and the Cadillac CT6. It made sense: Sales have been slowing, Americans aren’t buying compact cars or sedans anymore, and GM is repositioning itself for a future that includes both bigger vehicles and many more electrics.
A decade ago, the Volt, a plug-in hybrid, was the signal to the country and the world that General Motors might have run out of money, but it still had ideas and engineering talent. But it was ultimately eclipsed by GM’s successful launch of the Bolt EV—the $37,500 all-electric car that beat Tesla’s Model 3 to market.
The idea for the Volt came largely from GM bigwig Bob Lutz in 2006. He was tired of hearing praise for Toyota’s hybrid Prius and chatter about some upstart called Tesla run by a guy with a funny name. He wanted GM to prove it could still be innovative, even if it had been embarrassed by its killing of the small-volume but much beloved EV1, the fully electric two-seater it developed in the mid-90s. The Volt was a compact, four-seat car that could drive about 40 miles on a fully charged battery, then run a gasoline-powered generator to stay on the road.
To take a look back at the story and legacy of the Volt, we spoke with people who knew it intimately: Tony Posawatz, the high-level GM exec pulled out of the trucks division to shepherd the Volt into existence; Chelsea Sexton, who worked on the EV1 program, then started a career advocating for electric cars; John Voelcker, the journalist running Green Car Reports at the time; and Jeff U’Ren, who has had four Volts to date, and runs a Facebook group for his fellow owners. Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
A New Beginning
Tony Posawatz: I was planning director for GM’s full-sized truck business, which at the time was probably a Fortune 25 business: seven assembly plants in North America, 1.7 million units of capacity. I had also done work on hybrids. General Motors was having some serious discussions to say OK, we we need to step out and show our technical acumen, vis-a-vis the Toyota Prius. The Volt worked because it was an architecture for a product that had a lithium-ion battery in the middle, electricity generating capability in the front, and additional storage in the back, whether a gas tank or a tank for compressed hydrogen. We always realized that for different markets, the battery may grow or shrink, the extended range feature may be removed or not, depending on what the customers wanted and needed. And that’s how we sold it within the company.
Chelsea Sexton: I worked on the EV1 program, then left the company when the alternative was, “You can apply to work on the next iteration of another Buick or something.” I worked on the first Automotive X Prize, helped found Plug In America, and worked on documentaries about EVs. Who Killed the Electric Car hit Sundance in January 2006 and we did a press tour that spring. Chris Payne, the director, and I were standing on a street corner in Minneapolis when a reporter called and said, “What do you think about the idea that GM is doing another electric car?” Chris and I said, “We’ll believe it when we see it.” So GM invited us to Detroit. We actually did one of those weird smoky room dinners in December 2006, about a month before the Detroit auto show, at a backroom table, with a laptop showing us the Volt.
John Voelcker: I saw the concept at the 2007 Detroit auto show, and came to understand fairly quickly that this was not done out of touchy feely, save the earth, worry-about-carbon motives at all. This was about Bob Lutz saying, “Toyota has gotten all of this unfair credit for the Prius and for being green. They’re working hard to sell a full line including full size pickup trucks like us. But we’re the bad guys because we killed the EV1.” This was basically Lutz’s manhood. His take was, “We have more expertise in electrically driven vehicles than anyone. We’re going to find a way to make a car that is better than the Prius.” The idea was for a commuter car, which of course is what people in Michigan are very familiar with. You can drive X miles on electricity, so you can do most of your regular route miles on grid power. But if you wake up and decide you want to drive to Kansas City, you’ve got a gasoline engine to back it up. And you have a gasoline engine so you don’t have to freeze in the winter. It was a good engineering solution.
The Specter of the EV1
Jeff U’Ren: I grew up with a love of cars. I had a ‘65 GTO when I was in college, an amazing supercar. A guy I worked with had one of the first EV1s. I drove it, and it was amazing. It was this rocket of a car. It really recalibrated my brain towards what high performance is. So I went down to the dealership, and Chelsea Sexton leased me my EV1 on June 14, 1997. I drove that for three years, put 32,000 miles on it. Then they took it back. It was sad.
Voelcker: When I started Green Car Reports in 2009, it was all about, GM was the bad guy. Toyota was the good guy, and Tesla was the good guy. I cannot tell you the number of readers who were like, “I will never again buy a GM car or give them a dollar. They killed the EV1, so screw ’em.”
Sexton: Tony Posawatz was saying, “Oh, Chelsea’s going to love this car.” And I’m going, “Fool me once.” We were skeptical of GM at this point. Which led into a really interesting period of them trying really hard to engage, to the point where the media was making fun of them: Oh my god, they’re publicizing the latest door handle.
Posawatz: We were doing something effectively all-new. Just to get the electrical supply equipment, your charge cord and cable. No one had been doing that, the only chargers that existed were for golf carts. There was so much of this groundwork we did. The team viewed it as a higher purpose. And we almost operated as a startup within GM, with Bob Lutz being our buffer. We did not have to go through much of the normal management reviews and bureaucracy.
Sexton: They would call me and say, “We have two Volts in Long Beach. Call up 10 or 12 of your friends and bring them down, and we’ll do a parking lot test drive.” I’d bring lots of former EV1 drivers, including Bill Nye. Inevitably, most of them would come out going, “Oh my God, that’s not the GM that killed my car. That’s the GM that built it in the first place.”
U’Ren: I went down and drove the car on this course in a parking lot. I floored the thing, I spun it out, I drove it through the cones. I tried to break it. It was amazing. So I got back into my Prius, and it was like a tinker toy. I was like, “Eww! This thing is terrible!” I wound up with the same car that Jay Leno had just gotten, a gray 2011 Volt. Then my wife wanted one, so we got a white 2012. And then when my lease was up on the 2011 I got a 2014. And we had put too many miles on my wife’s car, since my son was driving it now to commute. So we got another 2014. I started the Chevy Volt Owners Facebook page because people wanted to talk about them, to share their stories. The best converts we had were the ones who had traded in their BMW or Mercedes or pickup.
Voelcker: The people who did buy Volts loved them. They really really loved them. I think the problem was that GM appears to have been completely unable to figure out how to explain the concept of a plug-in hybrid to people beyond the early adopters. They didn’t necessarily want a big market, they wanted to sell enough for regulatory compliance. But I think they had plans to sell more of later generations. In 2011, people sort of got hybrid cars: You ran them just like gasoline cars, but the magic gerbils under the hood drank less gas. And people get electric cars. Like your cell phone, you plug it in and you come back and has a full tank and you use it. But it’s really hard to explain in one sentence what a plug-in hybrid is. It’s a really good engineering solution, but you have to explain the advantages. That’s a really hard sell once you get beyond the early adopters.
Posawatz: I would get horror stories of people going into a dealership, and the dealer would say, “Oh you want a Volt, you must be interested in the fuel economy. Well I have 35 Chevy Cruises in inventory on my lot. Let me try to sell you one of those.” Or, the customer knew more about the car than the salesmen. And I can never understate the looming shadow: We weren’t popular folks, we were Government Motors. For many people that were the likely early adopters, it was a hard sell to push them into a Chevy dealership.
Sexton: I think GM sold basically as many Volts as they wanted to. They wanted to sell just enough to be seen as a leader. The initial marketing was, I won’t say insincere, but it was a little odd and it seemed grasping. “How do we figure out how to talk about this thing?” They had these weird alien commercials. They dumbed it down to a refrigerator. And who waxes lyrical about their appliance?
The Volt’s Legacy
Voelcker: I think it gave GM back its confidence in terms of being able to build electric cars that people really like.
Sexton: The sad part of the Volt leaving is that it was always a better car than GM got credit for. Many of us on the outside always loved the Volt, and thought more of it than most of the people inside GM.
Posawatz: I certainly wish we would have been a bit more aggressive in trying to carve out that leadership position. Now, there’s all these other conflicting trends and dynamics occurring, car sharing and new forms of multi-modal, the differences between cities and non-cities, and different policy challenges. I think GM sort of knows what the end goal is. How to get there is always the difficult part. That’s why I always felt the Volt had a vital role. It was much more than a bridge, though it will take still decades to build out the electric charging infrastructure.
U’Ren: I think the Volt has probably reached its natural conclusion. You know we really love our 2018 Bolt.