Chevy Volt is due out in 2010

But I'm not convinced as to why I should get one.

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I’ll admit, I’m a little late to the party on this one — the Chevy Volt has finally been announced. Unlike those auto bloggers who have been salivating over this for years and have now been pontificating on its significance since last week, I’ve been too busy trying to digest the financial crisis, and missed the fact that last Tuesday, General Motors finally announced its oft-lauded Chevy Volt.

In what is GM’s final gamble on its existence as a company, the Volt is an attempt to take on the Prius, the hybrid Civic, and every other alternative-fuel car (except for those multifuel cars that we’re sorely needing) that’s out there. And yes, there are the high-end electric/alt-fuel cars like the Fisker Karma and the Telsa Roadster, but those really aren’t designed for mere mortals like me.

In digging through the coverage in the newspapers and blogs, and trying to make sense of this all — and I’ll be the first to admit I don’t know jack about cars — here’s what I’ve come up with: This is a pretty rad car, but GM’s got a skeptic audience (myself included) to convince first.

From what I’ve seen thus far, there are two big criticisms about the Volt:

1) Lots of gearheads hate the design. I agree on this one. It’s just not distinctive enough. The EV1 was distinctive, as is the Prius. When I go visit my family in Southern California, I see such cars everywhere. GM, if you want to make people crave this vehicle, you have to make it obvious to recognize. Honestly, the Volt doesn’t look all that different from the Chevy Malibu. The Volt just looks sort of generic — like what I’d find at a rental car lot — kind of boxy and, generally, meh.



2) The Internets also tell me that the sticker price is going to be something in the neighborhood of $40,000. Again, for a mere-mortal car, that is pretty expensive. A 2009 Toyota Corolla (I drive a 2001) starts at $15,000, and a 2009 Prius starts $22,000. The Volt is nearly double that. Why? Is it twice-as-better technology? Again, as a non-gearhead, it’s not obvious to me why there’s such a big discrepancy.

Also, it’s not immediately obvious that the Volt is a better option overall when compared with a Prius. Remember GM, you have to convince American buyers that they should buy your green machine, and not another one from Toyota or Honda. With gas at $4 a gallon, you really don’t need to convince anyone that if they’re buying a new car, an electric/hybrid is the way to go.

Further, the Los Angeles Times isn’t convinced that the operational cost savings on the Volt compared with a Prius are as great as GM would have you believe.

To get a sense of what it would cost to operate the Volt on battery power, a little math is in order. The Volt battery has a 16 kilowatt/hour capacity, but to preserve battery life (think of a laptop battery), GM has tweaked it so that only half of that is drawn upon, for a total of 8 kilowatt/hours per charge. The average consumer price per kw/h in 2006 (the most recent data available) was 10.4 cents, according to the Energy Information Administration.That works out to 83.2 cents per charge, or 2.08 cents per mile.

By comparison, a Toyota Prius, which has a city/highway average fuel economy of 46 mpg, runs about 8.3 cents per mile (at today’s average gas price of $3.83 per gallon). On paper, the Volt costs only a quarter what it costs to operate a Prius.

But there are some big uncertainties in there. First, the average price of electricity has risen since 2006 and is certain to rise a bit more by the time the Volt comes out. And in some parts of the country, people pay as much as 33 cents per kw/h. At that rate, the Volt costs 6.6 cents per mile to operate.

The Detroit Free Press, however, claims that Volt drivers will be able to save $1,500 to $2,000 on fuel, compared with the $1,000 fuel savings on the Prius. But if the Volt costs nearly twice as much upfront, how is that worth it? (Toyota’s management apparently agrees, and has a Volt Death Watch going.)

For those of you who do know about cars and such, please tell me what’s an obvious difference that should immediately make me want to buy a Volt over a Prius (assuming I was in the market for a new car, which I’m not).

Nevertheless, the Free Press’ Mark Phelan calls the Volt “the 1984 Apple Macintosh on wheels, smashing an old paradigm and setting America free. It’s Mini Cooper compact cool mated to Prius environmental chic.” He adds, “Why did people stand in line all night to pay $400 for an Apple iPhone last year when other companies literally give mobile phones away? Because it was unique. Because it was the best.”

That’s true, but the iPhone wasn’t just unique — its design, great features and obvious usability superiority are what made the iPhone worth it. In a 30-second ad from 2007, Apple was easily able to show what made the iPhone different from all other smart phones that came before it. If GM can’t do the same (and it hasn’t in these ads), it’s going to have a hard time persuading people to throw down that much money for a new car.

Still, I’ve got two words that get my engine humming: photovoltaic roofs!

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