In this post—which I’ve slightly updated—I began to explore in some detail the real-world economics of owning and operating a Chevy Volt.  Unsurprisingly, the claims of its supporters did—and do—not come close to reality, a simple truth I explore in greater and more specific detail in upcoming posts.

12-27-10: It’s ReVolting

Life comes at us fast, as the commercial tag goes, and change is ubiquitous. In our fast paced, ever-changing lives, we can take occasional comfort in the fact that some things never change. We can rely on death, taxes, McDonald’s, the fecklessness and narcissism of Barack Obama, and above all, the obsequiousness of the New York Times.

Yes, the NYT has, once again, lived down to expectations. Thus comes Lawrence Ulrich, on the Times website, with a review of the much-ballyhooed Chevy Volt, a review that could not be more fawning if it was named “Bambi.” In fact, “Volt” could easily be replaced with “Obama” in much of the review and it would yield yet another Obama puff piece for which the NYT has become justly infamous. That review, entitled “Loaded with Baggage and Planning to Go Far,” may be accessed here. My original take on the Volt may be accessed here. Oh, and about the title…I couldn’t help myself. Stop me before I pun again!

Let’s take a brief trip to that magical land where socialists run free to regulate as they please and where all-electric, union built cars roam like wild, majestic mustangs, mustangs that are relegated to a less than 40 mile range and tethered to electric outlets powered by coal fired power plants.

The Volt leaves you grinning with its driving-the-future vibe. Yet the car operates so seamlessly that owners need not think about the planetary gear sets, the liquid-cooled electrons and all that digital magic taking place below.

Just don’t forget to unplug it when you back out of the garage.

And plugging it in is what you’ll want to do, as the Volt was designed with an operating strategy entirely different from other hybrids. It is meant to be driven primarily on the energy stored in its battery; the gasoline engine’s contribution to moving the car is largely indirect, by turning a generator that powers the electric motors once the battery has been depleted.

Mr. Ulrich might want to restrain his giddy, vibrating grinning a moment and reflect on basic economics. The Volt is a $41,000 compact car that, unless one wants to take 8-10 hours to charge its battery, requires a 240 volt fast charger in the home which costs another $2000. The fast charger will top off the battery at the warp speed rate of 4-5 hours. Ah, but the government is providing a $7500 tax credit, which brings the total price down to something like $35,500. Set aside, for the moment, that the taxes paid by the buyer on a $30,000+ car are substantially greater than those paid on a car costing only about $20,000. Set aside, for the moment, that this government subsidy does not appear out of thin air, but is comprised entirely of tax revenues being wasted to subsidize the union cronies and pie-in-the-sky greenie dreams of our new socialist masters.

Automobile manufacturing economics are relatively simple: Build a car enough of the public will want to buy in numbers large enough to turn a substantial profit. In this basic, simple equation, the Volt fails abysmally. In a real, capitalist world, a world where the Government did not own a controlling percentage of General Motors, the Volt would have never been built.

It is tempting to believe that Ulrich moonlights writing ad copy for Chevrolet as he and Chevy have labored mightily to hide the fact that the Volt is nothing more than a unnecessarily complex, common hybrid. The gasoline engine’s contribution to moving the car is not, in fact, “largely indirect.” When the battery charge falls below a predetermined level, the gasoline engine directly powers the wheels. It’s an ridiculously complex and expensive hybrid.

Still, despite giving it the good old NYT, Ivy-League college try, Ulrich can’t hide all the warts:

Having delivered the energy-use equivalent of about 112 miles per gallon in battery mode, the Volt continued to have admirable economy with the gas-driven generator supplying the electricity: 44 m.p.g. over all, whipping the E.P.A.’s estimate of 35 city and 40 highway. With its 9.3-gallon gas capacity — premium fuel required — you can exceed 300 miles per tank, in addition to the initial E.V. miles. That’s the crux of how the Volt maintains everyday practicality while affording owners all-electric motoring on short local trips.

After logging 120 miles (60 electric and 60 in gas-electric mode) the Volt returned the no-fudging equivalent of 64 miles per gallon. That average accounts for the 18 kilowatt-hours of plug-in electricity the Volt consumed — just over a half-gallon’s worth of gasoline using the conversion of about 33 kilowatt-hours of energy per gallon.

So, when we combine the all electric range, multiplied by the gasoline equivalent, divided by the kilowatt-hour cost, added to the furlongs per fortnight factor, and throw some banana peels in the gas tank, the Volt gets unbelievable, earth-shaking mileage at virtually no cost!

This is a large part of the Volt’s problem. There is no rational, easily understood means of comparing the Volt with gasoline-powere vehicles. It’s all smoke and mirrors, as the EPA produced mileage sticker suggests. In order to arrive at any figure, one must make a great many assumptions about relative costs, among the largest of which is that electricity and gasoline will remain relatively cheap even as the Obamites labor to make all energy prices “necessarily skyrocket,” as Mr. Obama himself dreamed on the 2008 campaign trail. Keep in mind too that premium gas–notice how slyly Mr. Ulrich slipped that little bit of economic disaster in–commonly costs $.50 to $.75 more than regular (a substantial, costly difference). And the “everyday practicality” about which Mr. Ulrich writes requires downtime of from 4-10 hours for charging, which means planning trips in advance to take advantage of that “practicality.” No spur of the moment, all-electric trips for Volt owners.

Mr. Ulrich ultimately settles on 64 MPG for his Volt driving experience and blithely claims:

Most owners, I think, will do better, determined to drive most of their miles on battery power.

Ah yes, the practicality! Ulrich continues:

Early adopters with the means and mind-set to buy a Volt–$41,000 on the window sticker, but $33,500 after subtracting the $7,500 federal tax credit, or $350.00 a month on G.M.’s sweetheart lease–will plug in faithfully, rarely sullying their Volts with a fuel nozzle.

Let’s hope that Volt “adopter” doesn’t live in a cold climate where about half of the year its battery will be substantially–even completely–drained of power, hence, range. Let’s also hope that they understand that they’ll have to invest heavily in gasoline stabilizers as gas unburned in a tank for long periods of time breaks down. But Mr. Ulrich is somewhat honest here in that he hints at the real nature of likely Volt “adopters.” These are people who see the Volt as a social, political statement, a badge of ecological honor. People who are willing to trade real everyday practicality for a multi-thousand pound, rolling statement of their green purity and virtue. That and people who are wealthy enough to buy a Volt for its novelty while still maintaining a fleet of conventional vehicles for, you know, everyday practicality.

And what is this “sweetheart lease?” What Mr. Ulrich apparently means is that GM isn’t going to make a penny off the lease; GM will probably lose money. Ah, but the taxpayer will pick up the difference. What sweethearts!

To be completely honest, Mr. Ulrich does get around to noting that the Volt is:

…really a plug-in hybrid…

but he quickly falls back into cheerleading:

But please, enough with stories that cherry-pick statistics comparing worst-case Volts against Priuses running downhill on the nation’s cheapest gas…

writes Mr. Ulrich, who immediately begins to furiously pick his own cherries:

In California…Pacific Gas & Electric plans to charge as little as 5 cents a kilowatt-hour for nighttime E.V charging.

So many fish; such a small barrel. Remember that one of Mr. Obama’s fondest, often and explicitly expressed wishes is to obliterate the coal industry in America, the coal industry that supplies coal for coal-fired power plants. Remember too that he has essentially stopped all nuclear plant building and his greenie allies have stopped solar and wind power generation projects. With this in mind, how does PG&E plan–as opposed to, you know, actually charging–to charge “…as little as 5 cents a kilowatt hour for nighttime E.V. charging?” This would only be economically feasible if there were hundreds of thousands, even millions of electric vehicles to charge each and every night. Absent that, only government subsidies could make such largess possible. Forget, for the moment, the utter improbability of millions of electric vehicles, even in green-obsessed California and remember the very nature of California. Rolling brownouts sound familiar? Wasn’t there something in the news recently about California being bankrupt, about to default? Weren’t California politicians vehemently denying it, which is a sure sign it’s true? Hmm. Maybe California wasn’t such a great example after all…

Mr. Ulrich adds one odd bit of information when he writes:

…owners can also cool or heat the car remotely, using grid electricity rather than draining the battery.

Apparently, while a Volt is plugged in, an owner can remotely pre-warm or cool the interior of the vehicle, otherwise a rather long electric cord would be required. But this inadvertently reveals what Mr. Ulrich apparently doesn’t realize, or has chosen not to mention: Functions such as heating and air conditioning the vehicle will dramatically reduce range as they drain battery power. Even such luxury functions as running the radio, using turn indicators or headlights will also quickly diminish range.

Describing the Volt, Mr. Ulrich dissolves into the language of oh-so-chic fashion reporting:

Call the Volt quietly handsome, with a pleasingly sporty stance and uncluttered visage…The flush-mounted touch panel controls look all Logan’s Run…the Volt’s cabin is comfortable and whimsically futuristic…

Remember that the NYT is the same newspaper whose David Brooks thought that Barack Obama would be a very good president–and, as Dave Berry says, I am not making this up–because of the crease in his pants. Mr. Ulrich even explains that the Volt handles well for a car that isn’t designed to handle well and doesn’t really have the tires for it, which is rather like observing that a professional basketball player can’t jump, but makes up for it by being 5’2″ tall.  And considering that the protagonist of Logan’s Run ultimately flees technology and civilization in favor of simplicity and freedom, Mr. Ulrich may have made a rather unfortunate comparison.

Toward the conclusion, Ulrich engages in a bit of fantasy-laced “reality”:

Certainly, you could buy a conventional Chevy Cruze for $20,000, get respectable mileage and save thousands. But the Volt isn’t for people looking for the lowest possible price or operating costs — it is designed for those willing to spend extra for new technology that can wean them off gas and cut pollution.

In other words, the Volt is a car that will make fans feel good about driving and about themselves. If that’s not your cup of green tea, don’t buy it. But if the Volt appeals to you, my hunch is that you’re going to love it more than any car you’ve driven in years.

Indeed, the Volt is for people–at least some people–who want to feel good about themselves in a particularly smug, self-righteous way. Such people will likely love the Volt more than any car they’ve driven in years because they love themselves more than anyone they’ve met in years and they’ll see the Volt as a reflection of themselves. But particularly if greenie hopes of a Volt in every garage come true, from where, pray tell, will all that electricity come? Even the government can’t print it. Won’t the greatly increased electric demand itself keep pollution at the same level, likely even increase it?

Notice too, Mr. Ulrich’s math. Buy a Chevy Cruze for $20,000 and save thousands. Yes, that’s from $13,500 to $15,500 (there’s that 240V fast charger again). I suspect most folks see “thousands” as two or three, not 13.5 to 15.5. Even if a Volt saved $1000 a year in fuel costs over a comparable high-mileage sedan, it would take 13.5 to 15.5 years to break even in those costs alone. If, for example, an economy minded buyer purchased a Ford Fiesta for say, $18,000, the numbers become even worse: From 15.5 to 17.5 years to break even. Most people would never come close to breaking even. This is what economists call a “disincentive.”

Ultimately, the Volt makes not a bit of financial sense.  Consider Mr. Ulrich’s comment:

With its 9.3-gallon gas capacity — premium fuel required — you can exceed 300 miles per tank, in addition to the initial E.V. miles. That’s the crux of how the Volt maintains everyday practicality while affording owners all-electric motoring on short local trips.

“Everyday practicality?”  Compare the Volt with my 2011 Ford Fiesta, which has a 10 gallon gas tank and routinely yields 31 MPG in daily driving, and 40+–effortlessly–in highway driving.  By Mr. Ulrich’s own standard, my Fiesta equals the mileage figures of the Volt—even arguably exceeds them in real world driving, and costs nearly $20,000 less in the first place.  It will also never require a new battery pack in the $10,000 dollar range at some unknowable point in the future.  This is not the kind of reality that will encourage Mr. and Mrs. America to rush out to buy a Volt.

Firearm Guru Col. Jeff Cooper called double action trigger mechanisms for semi-automatic handguns “an ingenious solution to a non-existent problem.” And so it is with the Volt. Its only potential virtues are somewhat higher mileage than comparable vehicles, and the potential to reduce pollution. However, these virtues depend almost entirely on wildly optimistic projections and hopes, and on infrastructure that does not exist and will not exist unless the sheer number of electric vehicles on the road make it economically feasible to build. Or, of course, unless the government spends money we don’t have building it regardless.

It’s sort of a berserk, reverse circular bit of reasoning: Proposition 1: electric vehicles can never be truly practical without a massive, ubiquitous charging infrastructure.  Proposition 2: without the demand produced by millions of electric vehicles, it’s lunacy to spend money on a massive, ubiquitous infrastructure.  Proposition 3: see propositions 1 and 2.

On the downside, compared with its competition, the Volt is substantially more complex, far less flexible, offers inferior performance in virtually every measurable category, and is so much more expensive, even considering a $7500 tax advantage (explain to me again why the Volt needs a huge tax incentive just to get it off dealership lots, and how long do you suppose the taxpayers will be rendering that advantage? 2012? 2016, if Mr. Obama is reelected?), as to make the mere economics of building and marketing the vehicle an exercise in fiscal insanity.

Under normal circumstances, the Volt would be an interesting engineering and development exercise and nothing more. The much reviled “bean counters” at GM would have prevailed, justly pointing out that the technology had not caught up to the dream (the engineers would likely have agreed), that the manufacturing costs were simply too high, that the potential customer base was far too small, and that even with an unprecedented taxpayer subsidy, the list price was simply too high. They surely would have added that when the subsidy evaporated, building the Volt would change from mere stupidity to absolute lunacy. All of these factors would add up to tell GM that every Volt manufactured would plunge GM further into red ink at a time when GM’s continued existence depended entirely on taxpayer bailouts–under normal circumstances.

But the Volt will not quickly go away. It owes its existence to Barack Obama and his bureaucrats who will not allow it to die until they no longer have any choice or say. And when it dies, as it surely will, the multi billion dollar price tag for this particular green boondoggle will, as always, come out of the pockets of taxpayers, the same taxpayers who one morning awoke to find themselves 61% owners of GM, the same taxpayers whose energy costs Mr. Obama is working so diligently to make “necessarily skyrocket.”

Oh well. What’s billions of squandered taxpayer dollars compared to the incomparable public service provided by Mr. Brooks and Mr. Ulrich writing about the rapture of pants creases and gee-whiz automotive features?