There's a lot to unpack in General Motors' massive restructuring that will see many models discontinued earlier than planned.
The first item: The Chevrolet Volt, which dies in four months, GM said Monday.
What is not clear -- yet -- is if the Volt's innovative range extender powertrain will live in another vehicle, such as the Chevrolet Equinox crossover. There, it would give GM a viable competitor against existing hybrid SUVs, and the big guns coming soon from Ford and Toyota. There's a new version of the Escape Hybrid on the way sometime next year, as well as a re-engineered RAV4 Hybrid, launching next month.
The Volt's Voltec 1.5-liter gasoline engine and twin electric motors implanted in an electric continuously variable transmission is a highly efficient and reliable automotive powertrain that deserves to live in a vehicle that consumers want to buy, such as a compact crossover. The Volt has performed respectably for GM -- despite very few marketing dollars allocated to it.
Unlike the failed EV1 from the 1990s, the Volt put up reasonable sales numbers. From the start of production in 2010 through October, GM sold 165,816 Volts in North America, according to the Automotive News Data Center. Since 2010, GM has built 176,242 Volts, according to production data from Wards Intelligence. GM sold the compact hatchback in global markets under a variety of names, including Holden, Buick, Opel and Vauxhall.
In that time, it's been the only dedicated vehicle from a global automaker to feature only a range extender powertrain, which means that the wheels are propelled by electricity most of the time. When the initial charge from the car's lithium ion battery pack is depleted, the gasoline engine fires up and spins a generator that creates electricity for the drive motors.
In the second-generation Volt, which debuted just three years ago, more power from the engine was sent to the wheels at highway speeds, which further improved efficiency. The Volt, then, was the bridge from gasoline-electric hybrids to full electric vehicles. It did away with range anxiety and continued to let you drive on electric power.
But the shift to SUVs, trucks and crossovers has dinged sales of nearly all hybrid cars, including the once invincible Toyota Prius. Through October, Prius sales in the U.S. are off 17 percent, and the Prius family has been downsized.
The evolution of the Volt's powertrain has shown GM's propulsion system engineers to be extremely creative. The second generation eliminated most of the rare earth magnets in the electric motors, which saved weight and reduced cost. Engineers also moved the power electronics directly onto the Volt's transmission, which rid the car of the heavy orange copper cables. Some of those lessons transferred to the Chevrolet Bolt battery electric car and will undoubtedly be part of GM's drivetrain in its upcoming fuel cell vehicle.
We've had three Volts in our family since 2010. Each one has delivered exactly what GM promised it would in terms of driving range. This spring, one night after a charge, the Volt showed 72 miles of range on its battery pack, a record for us. My wife might buy a tank of gasoline for the car four or five times a year. None of our three Volts has had a powertrain issue or any major problem.
The Volt was born out of the turmoil of GM's bankruptcy. In my view, it re-energized GM as a first-rate engineering organization. GM's chronic lack of marketing support for the Volt, buyers who would never consider any GM vehicle, and the shift away from cars may have doomed it. But the range extender deserves another shot in a vehicle more suited to the times.
The Volt's powertrain calls to mind the last lines of Cadillac's famous 1915 ad, The Penalty of Leadership:
"That which is good or great makes itself known, no matter how loud the clamor of denial. That which deserves to live -- lives."
The Volt's powertrain deserves to live.