Why GM is re-engineering its 'political punching bag'

Mahoney: “The Volt has done what it is supposed to do." Photo credit: GM

The next-generation Chevrolet Volt will have a trunk and the word “Volt” on the back of it, according to the teaser photo that General Motors released today.

I assume -- but can’t confirm from the photo -- that it also will have approximately four wheels, multiple doors and possibly an interior. The redesigned Volt will be fully unveiled at the Detroit auto show in January.

That’s eight years after the Volt made its stunning debut as a concept car in Detroit, four years after it went on sale and roughly 3.99 years after Republicans not named Dan Akerson lovingly nicknamed it the “Obamamobile.”

From Day 1, the Volt has been an unqualified smash hit, setting new sales records every month, generating billions of dollars in profits for GM and getting Americans to fall in love with electrified cars.

Wait, no. Nothing in that sentence is true.

Volt sales fell woefully short of GM’s projections. The company loses money on every one it sells (which seems like it should make GM happy that it hasn’t sold all that many). And if anything, the potential for electric cars is more uncertain now than before the first ones arrived at dealerships.

Any other car with that sort of track record might find itself headed to that great junkyard in the sky, where it could live out eternity making fun of the Pontiac Aztek and Photoshopping flames onto images of Rush Limbaugh.

Critics of GM might think the company is wasting money -- a lot of which came from taxpayers who often moonlight as critics of GM -- by continuing to invest in the Volt. But that’s the kind of short-sighted opinion that got GM into trouble when it focused on building big SUVs because that’s what people wanted at that exact moment, regardless of the long-term consequences.

In some regards, though, the Volt may be GM’s most successful money-losing car ever. Surveys show that it has the most satisfied owners in the industry, even if that’s a more exclusive group than the company was hoping for. GM says 69 percent of buyers previously drove a non-GM product.

“The Volt has done what it is supposed to do,” Tim Mahoney, Chevy’s global chief marketing officer, said today at the Management Briefing Seminars in Traverse City, Mich.

Volt is also the only nameplate in GM’s current lineup that has not been recalled this year.

Akerson was apparently not kidding when he told Congress in 2012, the last time it subjected a GM CEO to hours of public humiliation, that “we did not engineer the Volt to be a political punching bag.”

GM learned some expensive lessons from the first-generation Volt, and it has undoubtedly used that experience to do better with the upcoming version. The Volt will still probably lose money.

It still may not sell in huge numbers. It still won’t be breathlessly hyped on CNBC alongside the Tesla Model S or become the official vehicle of the 2016 Republican National Convention.

But GM is sticking with the Volt, for plenty of good reasons. Eventually, its big bet -- conceived at a time when so much of the company was crumbling -- is likely to pay off.

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