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At $41,000, Chevrolet Volt Isn't Cheap (But it Could Blaze Trails)

The price of the Chevy Volt "range extender" is out, and at $41,000 it's pretty much where we thought it would be. The assumption for the last two years was that the Volt was going to cost $40,000, and if that was wrong, GM would have hastened to correct the record. The company didn't expect people to applaud, and they didn't.

Yes, that's a lot of money, but it's also a lot of car. GM won't say if it's making money at that price. On the bright side, there's an alternative lease deal that will put a Volt in your garage for $350 a month, after a $2,500 deposit. At least half of Volt customers will probably go that route. But they might also consider buying the 40-mpg Chevrolet Cruze Eco model instead, for a savings of about $15,000.

The Volt's price will result in a lot of comparison shopping. Batteries are expensive, and so is new technology, which is why nearly all EVs are more expensive than people would want them to be.

Perhaps in defiance of the muted reaction to its announcement (and encouraged by an Obama visit to its plant), GM announced Friday that it was ramping up Volt production from 30,000 to 45,000 in 2012.

GM could have swallowed hard and priced the car as a loss leader, and that's just what Toyota did with the Prius (subsidized for many years, and possibly still subsidized). But it's unclear what the critics think the Volt should cost -- $10,000 less would be a sweet spot for some. You and I own GM, so how much of a loss do we want the company to take?

In a New York Times op-ed piece Friday, Edward Niedermeyer, editor of the caustic website The Truth About Cars, made exactly the opposite of the above point. He tore into GM for taking "billion of dollars of government loans and grants for the Volt's development and production," then delivering something that "looks suspiciously similar to a Toyota Prius."

On the attack, Niedermeyer says that the Volt "has less head and legroom than the $17,000 Chevrolet Cruze, which is more or less the non-electric version of the Volt." GM spokesman Rob Peterson calls that "a ridiculous comparison. Since when do we judge cars on their interior size? He's making a judgment about a car he's never set foot in."

Peterson has a point. If we judged cars on interior size, the Tesla Roadster sure wouldn't be worth $109,000. But Niedermeyer is on solid ground comparing the Volt to the Cruze, since they're both family cars. And the Cruze Eco (which saves fuel mostly by shaving weight here and there) was developed at a tiny fraction of the Volt's costs.

Niedermeyer calls the Volt "GM's Electric Lemon," but he'll take that back if it ends up blazing a trail. I don't expect the Volt to be a huge seller, and certainly not initially. But it will be the first (along with the long-in-gestation Fisker Karma) "range extender" car, a worthwhile alternative to the battery vehicle.

As GM pointed out in rolling out the car, the Volt can be (just like the Cruze Eco!) your only family car. Their point was to compare it to the $32,000 Nissan Leaf, with a range of 100 miles. And most of the time, Volt drivers will be just as green as Leaf drivers â€" their cars will operate mostly in full EV mode (unless they're going on long trips).

So the Volt looks bad when compared to the Cruze Eco, but good when stacked up against battery-only cars. Interesting. As with the blind man and the elephant, perspective depends on which part you touch.


Photo: Jim Motavalli
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