I remember the cold grey January 2007 day in Detroit when General Motors unveiled a vision for a car that it predicted would change the game for the struggling automaker and for the global car industry.
The Volt electric hybrid concept was greeted by a strange mix of excitement and derision from the 3,000 global auto writers who gather each year for the North American International Auto Show, the industry’s most important event.
On the one hand, this group of knowledgeable insiders literally applauded the reveal of the concept car and the corporate promise to put it on the road by 2010. But they quickly launched into what GM’s vice chairman and resident car guru Bob Lutz called “hoots of derision” about GM’s ability to deliver on its big idea.
The Detroit News triumphantly shouted in a headline, “GM Powers Up,” while Alex Taylor, an editor at Fortune, wrote that the Volt was “about as relevant to G.M.’s economic survival as an electric pogo stick.”
This pattern of celebration and disbelief has continued throughout the young life of the vehicle, which was officially born as a production model this week. Adoration for the car mixed with cynicism about the carmaker has made the Volt a metaphor for GM itself, and the bigger story about its near-death and hoped-for renaissance.
In advertisements the company ran in November 2008 during congressional hearings on auto industry bailouts, GM said of the Volt: “This is not just a car. It’s a vision of our future.”
So, it was inevitable that even before the first Volt came off a Detroit-area assembly line this week, observers would begin the scorekeeping about whether it would, indeed, be a game-changer for America’s legendary automaker.
The evidence is starting to come in that the answer to that question is “yes.”
Other companies have lined up behind GM’s vision and announced electric car programs of their own. One, the Nissan Leaf, has launched simultaneously in the U.S. last month.
Motor Trend Editor-in-Chief Angus MacKenzie, in awarding the vehicle its coveted Car of the Year distinction last month, said the Volt is one of the most significant vehicles to receive the award in its 61-year history. According to Google, there were more than 850 English-language stories written about this award. A PR triumph by any measure.
On the eve of GM’s initial public offering of stock in November, General Electric announced a commitment to buy 12,000 Volts for its company fleet. Almost 670 news stories appeared about that. Another PR triumph.
And this week, GM announced plans to hire an additional 1,000 engineers to solidify its leadership as a designer and manufacturer of electric vehicles.
Even though the latest story received much less attention, Google logged just 20 or so reports, smart observers are paying more attention to it as an indication of the importance of the Volt to GM’s and America’s future. It is evidence that the vehicle is having an impact on more than GM’s reputation. It provides a proof point about the worth of the taxpayer-funded GM bailout and that the game for GM has changed and will likely continue to do so.
An irony of the recent GM drama is that it has focused so much on the Wall Street engineers who cleaned up the GM balance sheet and brought it back from the brink of financial ruin. Men who’d never set foot in Detroit before 2009 placed themselves at the center of media adoration. It is fitting that the Volt, and the engineers and designers who brought it to life during the turbulent past three years, are now the center of the GM story.
Lutz, the former executive and the Volt’s godfather, once said that in the car business the real hero is always the car. So, even though critics will point out that Volt sales may not directly drive the GM’s short-term financial success, the vehicle’s very existence makes a halo statement about GM’s engineering and design prowess. That can’t be bad for sales of Chevys, Cadillacs and Buicks around the world. I think it might even be heroic.
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