Musings on the Past

Chevrolet Volt: The forgotten revolutionary

If you thought ancient history being written by the victors was a little unjust, rest assured that at least these victors had the decency to spin the loser as a worthy antagonist. In the history of technological progress, there is no such consolation for losers in memorialisation. Any product of technology either makes its mark or gets tossed into the dustbin of history.

That being the case, it would remiss of us not to acknowledge the passing of Chevrolet Volt, which recently got axed by General Motors as the company begins culling their model range and turning their focus towards SUVs as Ford had done to their North American model range.

When the first-generation Volt debuted in 2011, it became the darling of North American early adopters who wanted something with more buzz and green credentials than their neighbourhood Prius, and the Volt delivered. It wasn’t just another hybrid with a weak electric motor assisting an engine, instead, the Volt was designed to be more of an electric car that had an engine to assist it in extending its 50km all-electric range when the batteries ran low on juice. It was North America’s first production plug-in hybrid, and it did earn its fair share of admirers and skeptics.

Unfortunately, the Volt never could live up to General Motors sales expectations right from its introduction. Not even with the combined effort of General Motors’ international brands in Europe and Australia, could the company reach its sales expectations. Sales would peak in 2012 and steadily declined from then on.

The Volt’s slow demise had little to do with the car, as by most accounts the Volt was a reliable runner and delivered on its fuel efficiency claims. Rather the Volt’s launch in 2011 couldn’t have come at a more inopportune era.

The Volt was a reactionary product that was birthed from the commodities boom of the early 2000s, which saw oil prices surge from USD30 a barrel in 2003 to its peak of USD147 in July 2008. The price rise stoked fears in many observers and analysts that global oil production was fast approaching the Peak Oil scenario, and that USD200 a barrel prices might become the new norm.

In the midst of such distressing predictions, development of the Volt was well underway by the mid-2007, but as it turns out, the prices were mere speculation. The 2008 financial collapse lifted the lid off the bubbling commodities market, while the United States shale oil boom of 2014 drove prices down further, forcing OPEC to engage in a price war that sent oil prices plummeting, and in turn restored the market’s appetite for SUVs. By then the shock of the commodities boom had already spurred a frenzy amongst carmakers for electrified drivetrains.

Volkswagen’s ambitious MQB platform was designed with the intent of accommodating electrified drivetrains, while BMW’s sixth-generation 3-Series underlined BMW’s new goal to design their new and upcoming models to accommodate a hybrid variant in mind. Porsche’s shock 2010 918 Spyder concept had sparked a new arms race of hybrid performance cars with Ferrari and McLaren, and not forgetting that by 2015 the car everyone was talking about was an electric sedan from a small company called Tesla.

Although General Motors was able to further refine the Volt’s Voltec powertrain, bringing costs and weight down, and turning it into a proper hybrid for use in the Chevrolet Malibu and Cadillac CT6, the market had clearly moved on. Early adopters who were once the ardent supporters of dedicated hybrid model lines like the Prius are now looking towards electric cars as the widespread acceptance of hybrid drivetrains and falling battery prices have made hybrids commonplace, even amongst SUVs and crossovers.

Furthermore, hybrids are steadily gaining a more mainstream appeal for its association with enhancing performance rather than reducing consumption, whereas electric vehicles are able to deliver greater range with more affordable pricing, so much so that BMW recently announced that it will drop the i3’s range-extender engine from its options list for European dealers.

Save for buses, Mercedes-Benz F-Cell hydrogen fuel cell range extenders, and Mazda’s rumoured revival of the rotary engine as a range extender, the idea of having an engine solely to assist an electric motor seems a little old-hat, and historically, it is.

It isn’t the first time the range-extender concept had failed to catch on. After all, it is one that is as old as the internal combustion engine itself, with its first appearance on the 1901 Lohner-Porsche Semper Vivus, the brainchild of Ferdinand Porsche. Rather unsurprisingly the Volt’s powertrain would ultimately share the same fate as the Semper Vivus, being a transitional piece of technology that became outmoded by the presence of cheap fuel only to be left behind and forgotten by progress.

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