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GM to bolster Volt cars with battery changes

Move comes after safety questions

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LANSING, Mich. — General Motors Co. announced mechanical fixes to its much-hyped gas-electric Chevy Volt on Thursday, a bid to reassure consumers and shore up the brand's image in the face of an ongoing federal investigation and owner concerns about crash-test battery fires.

The automaker, on the rebound after federal bailouts and early positive reviews for its extended-range Volt, insisted the model was "safe" but said it would reinforce the car´s battery pack containment system, protecting it from the effects of impact in a severe crash. It also planned to add a tamper-resistant bracket on top of the Volt´s battery coolant reservoir to keep fluid from overflowing, among other tweaks.

Although GM execs did not describe the repairs as a full-on recall, Volt owners will be asked to bring their cars to dealers where parts for the new battery enhancements should be available by next month.

GM´s announcement was an effort to allay fears about the Volt´s safety after batteries caught fire after crash-tests conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) last year. No real-world fires, however, have been reported, and GM had offered in November to repurchase the cars or offer loaner vehicles to Volt owners with fire concerns. About 250 Volt owners have accepted such remedies.

"These enhancements and modifications will address the concerns raised by the severe crash tests," said Mary Barra, GM´s senior vice president of Global Product Development. "We have tested the Volt´s battery system for more than 285,000 hours, or 25 years, of operation. We´re as confident as ever that the cell design is among the safest on the market."

GM will notify Volt owners when the modifications are available for their cars. The change to the batteries will be incorporated in all new Volts when production resumes later this month, the automaker said, noting that the vehicle was a "top safety pick" of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

GM said that through November 2011, its Volt drivers logged 20 million miles "without an incident similar to the results in the NHTSA tests," where a coolant leak sparked battery fires in full-scale crash tests conducted in May 2011.

"We have made the Volt even safer," said Mark Reuss, president of GM North America in a conference call with reporters Thursday morning, declining to discuss what the repairs would cost. GM stock rose $1.02, or nearly 5 percent, to close at $22.17 Thursday.
But GM officials acknowledged the revelations of the Volt's problems have had an impact on potential buyers.

"There has been some uncertainty in the market," Alan Batey, vice president of GM's Chevrolet division told the Associated Press. "We do believe that uncertainty will go away."

The NHTSA responded to the GM announcement on its own website Thursday, noting that "the preliminary results of the crash test indicate the remedy proposed by General Motors today should address the issue of battery intrusion." The agency´s investigation, however, is not yet completed, although GM executives said Thursday they remained optimistic that they would soon be finished.

The Volt garnered early rave reviews and was named Motor Trend magazine´s 2011 "Car of the Year." But GM said this week that it fell short of its 2011 goal of selling 10,000 Volts, though officials said they were not upset with the 7,621 vehicles that were purchased in North America last year. By contrast, Nissan Motor Co., with its less-expensive competitor vehicle, the Leaf, sold 9,674 cars last year.

U.S. House hearings are expected later this month on reports that regulators from the NHTSA suppressed investigation information about the battery fires, in part because of the government's ownership stake in the company. GM, along with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, have denied those charges.

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