Volt controversy could hurt GM's image

Tennis legend Andre Agassi once spouted, “Image is everything” in a commercial.

It took him a long time to live down that line. Agassi's struggle early in his career to win a grand slam left some with the perception that he was just a long-haired rebel with style and no substance.

But image is something.

And when a company rests a large part of its perception in one product, any controversy surrounding that product could be a public relations disaster.

Take the latest controversy over the Chevrolet Volt.

Some auto writers say the Volt is not a true electric car, as General Motors Co. insists it is. Those writers say it's a hybrid because in some circumstances, when the battery runs down or while at high speeds, it uses a gasoline engine to help propel the car.

GM has said the Volt would primarily run on electric power, reflecting the typical commute to work and back -- less than 40 miles or so. Though when the battery is nearly depleted, a small gasoline engine kicks in to give the Volt additional range.

Further complicating things for GM, some in the automotive press have challenged GM's fuel economy estimates that the car would average 230 mpg.

I'd argue that many consumers won't really understand the difference between pure electric and hybrid. But what the public will understand is when some members of the press accuse GM of lying.

If people believe for one second that GM misled them in its claims about the Volt, no matter what the truth is, GM is once again perceived as a bad guy -- an image it is desperate to shake.

And image, in this case, is everything.