- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 4, 2011

They’re not ready to pull the plug on their electric-gas wonder car, but officials at General Motors have clearly shifted to damage-control mode for the sassy but safety-challenged Volt.

Sleeker than Toyota’s stubby but popular Prius hybrid, which has sold a million units since it hit the highways in 2000, the Volt can ride for 40 miles on an electric battery, plug into a regular home electrical outlet to recharge and then switch over to gasoline — the gas starts a generator, which in turn recharges the battery — if it needs to keep on running for a distance.

The environmentally conscious car has thus far earned rave reviews from consumer surveys, which laud its advanced technology, performance and the lack of constraint on a battery life, which had previously stymied the fledgling electric-car market. Now, however, GM is weathering a small storm after three Volt batteries sparked fires in federal crash tests.

Peter DeLorenzo, a Detroit-based auto analyst who has driven the vehicle, says the fire concerns are more media hype than problem for GM.

“Let’s be realistic. These battery fires happened after severe crashes; it’s not fender benders,” Mr. DeLorenzo said. “It has nothing to do with Volts spontaneously combusting somewhere. Unfortunately, in this 24/7 instant-media-connection era we live in, all people will take away is Volts catching fire. They don’t read beyond that. I think the Volt is very safe, and the technology is very safe.”

GM, in a nod to customer service and mounting a quick public relations offensive amid some criticism, said Thursday that it would buy back Volts from any owners who are afraid of the possibility of fires. The Detroit automaker promised consumers that once inspectors determine the cause, a recall would be made for the close to 6,000 vehicles currently on the road. The company also offered loaner vehicles to Volt owners while the fire investigations continue.

In tests by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, three fires broke out in the cars’ lithium-ion batteries after simulated side-impact crashes. Although no conclusions have been reached about why, GM said its vehicles are safe, noting that no fires resulted from Volt owners involved in actual roadway accidents. The same type of battery is used by Nissan in its Leaf model and by Tesla Motors.

“The fire broke out seven days later — not seven minutes. Not seven seconds,” GM Chief Executive Officer Dan Akerson told the Associated Press of its tests.

NHTSA, which is reviewing battery data from other companies, also tried to assuage initial concerns in a statement, issued on Nov. 25. “Chevy Volt owners whose vehicles have not been in a serious crash do not have reason for concern,” it said.

GM monitors all Volt crashes. An OnStar safety system notifies GM after a wreck, and the automaker sends out a team within 48 hours to drain the Volt batteries, Mr. Akerson said.

“I think in the interest of General Motors, the industry, the electrification of the car, it’s best to get it right now than when you have — instead of 6,000 — 60,000 or 600,000 cars on the road,” he said.

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