GM hopes the Volt has a buzz that's electric

The Chevrolet Volt hit San Antonio amid the hoopla normally expected for the next must-have tech item.

Ed Whitacre Jr., General Motors Co.’s soon-to-depart chairman, drove a vehicle that runs on electricity to an unlikely event for such a machine — the Texas Truck Rodeo, held by the Texas Auto Writers Association.

The Volt plug-in hybrid tour comes to Houston Sunday and Monday, with the chance for the public to test-drive the car.

And the car’s appearance comes about a week after the revelation from GM that the Volt’s wheels are sometimes powered by its internal combustion engine, contradicting earlier claims by the company and sending influential auto bloggers and analysts into a tizzy. The headline on one of the websites run by research firm read “GM Lied: Chevy Volt Is Not a True EV”.

Getting attention

That sort of attention is good for GM, said Jeremy Anwyl, Edmunds’ CEO. The much-maligned automaker’s attempt to answer Toyota’s Prius is getting the kind of attention usually reserved for highly anticipated tech gadgets: high-profile unveilings featuring executives and spirited debate about technical minutiae on the blogosphere.

“It’s an unusual situation,” Anwyl said. “You see it a lot in the high-tech industry, but you don’t see it that much in the car industry. And the fact that it’s a GM vehicle, it’s noteworthy.”

The Volt goes on sale in Austin by the end of this year and will arrive at dealerships across Texas early next year.

But details about the vehicle, which will run on a battery that can be plugged in, and on an internal combustion engine, are sketchy. The car can run on electricity only for 25 to 50 miles, GM says, and its gas tank will hold 8 to 12 gallons and have a total range of 350 miles. The car’s gas mileage has yet to be announced as the Environmental Protection Agency tries to figure out how it will measure fuel use on a vehicle that uses gas and electric power. Joe Weisenfelder, senior editor at, estimated that the engine will get 35 to 40 mpg while running on gasoline.

Maximum efficiency

The comparison to a high-tech gadget isn’t that far off. The Volt has several drive settings to maximize efficiency and can be programmed to charge at times when energy consumption and prices are low. It also can be scheduled to begin heating or cooling its cabin while it’s still plugged into the wall.

Diana Glawe, an associate professor of engineering science at Trinity University, said energy efficiency will be a big factor in her next car purchase and is considering buying a Volt, but she’s concerned about the cost and the new technology. Glawe test-drove one Friday and said she was impressed, but needs to look at the cost of other options.

Not cheap

The Volt is not cheap. It’s priced at more than $40,000, although buyers qualify for a $7,500 federal tax credit, and is available for lease at $350 per month. Analysts say the lease deal will go a long way toward alleviating concerns about both the vehicle’s price and its untested technology.

The Volt’s real contribution to the auto industry will be how it changes perceptions about electric vehicles, Weisenfelder said. Its internal combustion engine will assuage fears about electric vehicles’ limited ranges, he said, while most of those who buy the Volt will find they rarely drive enough in one day to fully deplete the battery.