DETROIT (Bloomberg) -- Pity the Chevy Volt.
Ever since it became known that the plug-in hybrid car's batteries had caught fire weeks after government crash tests, the Volt has become the whipping boy of Republican politicians. Conservatives have equated General Motors Co.'s Volt with everything from government bailouts to radical left-wing environmentalism.
"Although we loaded the Volt with state-of-the-art safety features, we did not engineer the Volt to be a political punching bag," GM CEO Dan Akerson said during a Congressional hearing on the Volt in January. "And that, sadly, is what the Volt has become."
Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich faulted the Volt for its lack of space for a gun rack. Front-runner Mitt Romney called it "an idea whose time has not come." American Tradition Partnership Inc., a conservative group, referred to Volts as "exploding Obamamobiles."
Akerson said all the trash talk about the Volt has been pinching sales. Obama's challengers, though, see it as an effective way to resonate with their voters.
Republicans buy Silverado pickups and other Chevrolets in greater numbers than Democrats do, said Art Spinella, who studies new-vehicle buyers as president of CNW Marketing Research in Bandon, Ore.
While Chevy customers tend to lean conservative, less than 14 percent of Volt buyers so far this year identify themselves as Republicans while about 53 percent call themselves Democrats, according to CNW survey of 1,416 people. Buyers of the Chevrolet brand as a whole were 37 percent Republican, 22 percent Democrat and 41 percent independent.
Politics aside, Volt sales have been a source of disappointment for GM. The Environmental Protection Agency gave it a 95 mpg rating for city driving, less than half the 230 mpg rating GM had anticipated in 2009.
After the battery fires became public in November, 2011 sales fell short of Akerson's goal and following slow sales in January and February, GM decided to stop making the cars for five weeks. While the government's investigation found the Volt to be as safe as other vehicles, they are complicated and expensive for a small car at nearly $40,000 before a federal tax credit.
Nissan Motor Co.'s Leaf electric car missed its sales targets last year, too, raising questions about the size of the market for technology-laden fuel-efficient vehicle.