GM offers free loaners to Volt owners after fire probe

In an unprecedented move, General Motors will lend Chevrolet Volt owners another GM vehicle for free until the automaker resolves a federal probe over three fires in Volt battery packs.

Following Friday’s announcement by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that it was opening a formal defect probe into the plug-in hybrid Volt, GM told reporters today it was standing behind the car and would do everything it could to ease any owners’ concerns — including borrowing a non-electric set of wheels.

No other automaker has ever handed out free loaners simply because of a defect investigation which may or may not result in a recall. But GM’s move shows just how key the Volt and its technology are to the automaker’s image; the Volt has been a star of recent GM television ads, and GM executives say it will keep its role for now.

“Even though no customer has experienced in the real world what was identified in this latest testing of post-crash situations, we're taking critical steps to ensure customer satisfaction and safety,” said Mark Reuss, GM’s North American chief.

GM once again said the three fires observed by NHTSA — one from the car above wrecked during crash testing, and two from battery packs tested outside the vehicle — would not have happened if the agency followed GM’s protocol of draining the packs following a crash. Each pack holds enough electricity to power the car about 40 miles — roughly what a typical American household uses in two days.

No fires have been reported in cars on the road, and executives maintain the Volt poses less of a fire risk in general than vehicles driven solely by gasoline. (The Volt does carry a 9-gallon tank of fuel for powering its engine to

“We don’t think there’s an immediate fire risk,” Reuss said, adding that his daughter would keep driving her family in their Volt.

Mary Barra, GM’s product development chief, said none of the Volt’s crash testing punctured the lithium-ion battery cells made by South Korean firm LG Chem. The three fires all involved damage to the packs, the container GM builds in Michigan that carrying the cells and includes complicated electronics and cooling systems. Barra said GM had identified some potential design changes to the Volt pack, but declined to give specifics.

GM has never expected to make large profits on the Volt, which carries a sticker price of $42,000 before federal and state incentives. Rather, the Volt was supposed to show buyers that stoic old GM could build technology that matched foreign competitors, and build experience in electric vehicles.

GM marketing chief Joel Ewanick said the Volt’s ad campaigns would not be changed due to the defect probe, and that shoppers made aware of the Volt become 60% more likely to consider any Chevrolet model.