Famous for Catching Fire: Chevrolet Volt

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Despite a reputation for catching on fire, the Chevy Volt is really a fine car with modern fuel-saving technology that was developed entirely in America.

Try typing "Chevy Volt" into Google, and chances are that the word "fire" will appear near the top of the suggestions list. How can a car be famous for catching fire when not one has actually caught fire in normal real-world use? Welcome to the wonderful world of American politics. The Volt is a more practical solution to the problems presented by pure electric vehicles, but it is unfortunately also the subject of much political discourse.

The Volt is really a simple enough concept. It has a battery which allows it to travel 35 miles (slightly less than half that of a Nissan Leaf) on purely electric power, but if you don't manage to plug in before this runs out, a gasoline engine will kick on and supply electricity to the motor. The pure electric range is enough for most Volt owners most of the time, but the range extender is one of those things which you'll be extremely thankful for when you need it. But it's not unusual for Volt owners to go months between fill-ups, and the very first customer to have taken delivery of a Volt has reported using only 26 gallons of gas in the two years he's owned the car.

GM decided to go the extended-range route because a pure EV is still, realistically, fairly impractical. GM knew that asking customers to buy a car which couldn't be driven a few counties away and then back without an 8-hour charging break was absurd, and its reward has been much, much higher sales than Nissan has had for the Leaf. The politics of the electric car date back to the late Nineties. GM had built an electric car called the EV1. It was the most advanced car of its type at the time, but as much money as GM had sunk into the project, it ended up deciding that the car wasn't worth the cost of manufacturing any more.

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The small number which had been leased were all collected at the end of those leases and crushed, which was entirely GM's prerogative. Some of those who had leased an EV1, including the shrill and mind-blowingly self-righteous Alexandra Paul, requested and later demanded that GM let them buy the cars. But doing this would have required GM by law to maintain a parts and service infrastructure for the cars for a minimum of 15 years. That's quite an investment for a handful of cars owned by a few annoying celebrities. So it crushed the cars, and then it all came back to bite them in the ass.

The documentary "Who Killed the Electric Car?" accused GM of all manner distasteful business practices and ignited the fury of paranoid conspiracy theorists everywhere. Current sales figures for electric cars essentially confirm that GM would not have sold enough of the comparatively primitive EV1 to have made a profit. The case for killing the car is as clear cut as business decisions can be, knowing what we know now, and since GM is a car company and knows the industry better than a random documentarian does, it knew this ahead of time. But don't think there's been an apology from the filmmakers.

EV proponents might have had a monopoly on asshole points when it came to politicizing cars were it not for the 2012 election. GM had been struggling just prior to the Volt's debut and had taken government money to stay afloat, some under the Bush administration and some under Obama. But such noted political windbags as Rush Limbaugh seized the opportunity to accuse the Obama administration of taking control of GM as a means to force us all to drive hippy Kenyan socialism-mobiles. This was clearly untrue, and Bob Lutz, the former vice-president of GM, published numerous op-ed pieces calling out pundits for lying about the car.

He went on to point out that he was a conservative and was appalled to see his fellow conservatives bashing a fine example of American ingenuity. The truth is that the Volt project was set in motion by Lutz while Bush was president and years before GM had taken a dime of government money. But it was discovered that the association with Obama had stuck despite being untrue and so the pundits set about finding new ways to criticize it. Fate smiled on these pundits when a Volt which had been crash tested had its battery pulled out and stored upside-down for several weeks before catching fire.

Attempts by both GM and the NHTSA to replicate the conditions that caused the fire were unsuccessful, and the only Volt to have burned outside of crash testing was one that happened to be in a garage next to a home-made EV which went up in flames. The Volt hadn't caused the fire, but photos of the burned-up Volt made the rounds on the internet anyway. One Volt caught fire under circumstances which would never occur in a customer's hands, but the Volt is still closely associated with catching fire. So ugly political mudslinging has turned the Volt and electric cars in general into so much more than they really are.

But the Volt is a fine car and is highly unlikely to catch fire. It's perhaps a bit pricey, but if you want one, you should buy it. And if you don't, then don't, it's just a consumer product like any other. If it would help make the decision easier, we could lock Alexandra Paul and Rush Limbaugh in a room and let them scream at each other until they're too hoarse to yell at us. In fact, if anyone out there has the power to do this, please do.

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