By Rick Haglund/Bridge Magazine correspondent
General Motors CEO Dan Akerson recently lamented that the Chevrolet Volt had become “a political punching bag” for conservatives who see it as a rolling symbol of liberal economic policies.
But the repeated right hooks haven’t knocked the Volt out yet.
Just weeks after GM announced a temporary production shutdown due to slow sales, the electric plug-in hybrid posted its highest monthly sales since being introduced in December 2010.
Chevy sold 2,289 Volts in March, more than double sales of 1,023 in February. Volt sales of 3,915 vehicles so far this year are more than triple the 1,210 Volts sold in the first three months of 2011.
Analysts attributed the sales improvement to a variety of factors, including high gasoline prices and the introduction of an attractive, $349-a-month lease deal.
Many conservatives, opposed to the Obama administration’s 2009 bailout of GM and federal subsidies for “green” initiatives, felt a measure of vindication when GM announced a five-week halt in Volt production in early March.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has called the Volt “an idea whose time has not come.”
But the sales spurt has prompted GM to resume Volt production on April 16, a week earlier than planned. Restarting production will return about 1,300 workers to their jobs at the Detroit-Hamtramck assembly plant where the Volt is built.
A GM spokeswoman wouldn’t comment on media reports that the company is planning to extend the normal two-week production shutdown in July to three weeks for the Volt.
“We will continue to build Volt to demand, and we’re not making any other production announcements at this time,” spokeswoman Michelle Malcho said. Akerson told reporters at the New York Auto Show in early April that GM hoped to sell about 3,000 Volts a month for the rest of this year.
Sales of the Volt plunged last fall after batteries in several of the vehicles caught fire two weeks after federal crash tests.
Republicans later accused the Obama administration of purposely delaying news of the Volt fires to protect the car’s reputation and the federal government’s $60 billion bailout of GM.
Akerson, who was hauled in to testify about the fires before a congressional panel in January, said no real-world Volt fires had occurred and that the vehicle was safe.
“Although we loaded the Volt with state-of-the-art safety features, we did not engineer the Volt to be a political punching bag,” he said. “And that, sadly, is what the Volt has become.”
Volt sales are likely to remain relatively low because of the vehicle’s $39,145 base price (not including a $7,500 federal tax credit) and competition from lower-priced, fuel-efficient, gasoline-powered vehicles.
“There’s no (charging) infrastructure, and consumers can’t seem to justify the premium you pay for a plug-in hybrid,” said Michelle Krebs, an auto industry analyst at Edmunds.com.
But the Volt has won over at least one prominent Republican. Fox News reported on April 2 that former President George H.W. Bush recently bought a Volt as a birthday president for his son, Neil.
Rick Haglund has had a distinguished career covering Michigan business, economics and government at newspapers throughout the state. Most recently, at Booth Newspapers he wrote a statewide business column and was one of only three such columnists in Michigan. He also covered the auto industry and Michigan’s economy extensively.