Drivers will be the ultimate test of Chevrolet Volt’s success, future

Guest Editorial
As one writer put it, if we could harness the energy spent talking about the Chevrolet Volt, we would never need to buy oil from the Middle East again.

That is an exaggeration, but not by much. General Motors — the company that critics famously accused of “killing” the electric car — is trying to resurrect it. The plug-in hybrid is Motor Trend’s Car of the Year. It is no less than the savior of the American car industry, supporters hail, or of a planet that is choking in greenhouse gas emissions.

Wait and see. First, GM needs to win over buyers. The first Volt to roll off the assembly line fetched $225,000 in a charity auction, but it’s yet to be seen how well it will win over the public, even at less than $42,000 per car.

There are financial arguments in the Volt’s favor. It comes with federal tax rebates initially, and one official with Consumers Energy estimated that someone who spends $120 a month on gas could replace that with $18 in electric costs. The car could be a good investment, let alone any environmental benefits.

Still, those benefits are not absolute. Anyone plugging in a Volt, or another electric vehicle, is drawing from an electrical power grid that in Michigan is powered substantially by coal. And as groups like the Sierra Club insist, there is no such thing as “clean” coal.

We suspect most car buyers ultimately will consider what’s practical, instead of acting solely in the interest of Mother Earth. Will they adapt to plugging in their car instead of filling up at the pump? Will the vehicle’s price come down enough to attract people? How well will it run?

The answers are years away, but they will not come from politicians, environmentalists or hopeful automakers. The fate of the electric vehicle, like any product, rests with the American consumer, who will either embrace this car or relegate it to the scrap heap.