General Motors' decision to stop making Chevy Volts for the time being was an easy one. February's sales uptick was only a dead-cat bounce for its controversial near-EV, and GM still needs to slim down stockpiles of the car that would last nearly half a year at current sales rates.
No matter Volt's broader and potentially historic significance -- GM can't simply keep pumping units out of its Detroit factory and expect Chevy dealers to figure out how to sell them to a currently unwilling public.
Now comes a much harder decision for GM's brain trust: They may need to recast their long-term strategy for Volt. They said as much back in January, after the federal government cleared the car in its safety investigation, and promised the results of their re-evaluation by spring.
The landscape needs to clarify a bit before GM can become confident of making the right call on a vehicle that is so high-profile -- hailed as a veritable icon of "green" energy by President Obama and as a "halo" vehicle by CEO Dan Akerson, yet derided as a boondoggle by critics and, at worst, reviled as the poster image for environmental extremism.
Here are four factors GM executives will be considering as they recast their Volt strategyy:
Media bias -- really?: GM was quick to blame media "exaggeration "of the safety concerns that were investigated by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and then dismissed as unfounded -- after GM already had announced a mechanical "fix" and even offered to swap cars with some Volt owners who were worried about the vehicle's crashworthiness.
But this is where GM risks biting the hand that has fed Volt's positive buzz over the last three years. Any sentient journalist would have seized on the sensational news of Volt's potential safety defect last fall, a story initiated by the Obama administration anyway.
The truth, however, is that many of the people who regularly cover the company and the industry harbor support for the Volt; for example, a "jury" of them voted it North American Car of the Year for 2011. It also today was named European Car of the Year in advance of the Geneva International Auto Show.
Liberal thinkers dominate the car beat just as they do most of the rest of mainstream news media. And many auto scribes are not-so-secret admirers of Bob Lutz, the erstwhile GM vice chairman turned blogger who was a driving force behind Volt before Barack Obama was. Lutz himself mounted a defense of Volt in a recent Forbes.com post in which he predicted that layoff of Volt workers would be the outcome of criticism by Volt from the right.
GM likely won't go much further in blaming Volt's woes on the media. The company would have to make too fine a point about exactly whom they're criticizing.
The existing business case: Obviously Volt doesn't yet make sense as a financial proposition to mainstream consumers, that vast majority beyond the "early adopters" who flocked to the car. Volt is the most common-sense approach to vehicle electrification yet conceived by any automaker because it removes the "range anxiety" that plagues all-electric vehicles that lack Volt's onboard gasoline engine. Yet at a price of about $41,000, or lease payments of about $350 a month, Volt simply doesn't scream "Deal!" to many Americans, especially with more fuel-economic alternatives such as optimized gasoline engines and high-yielding diesel power. Carmakers still have trouble selling simple hybrids. Maybe Volt is simply ahead of its time, but the gap may be an eon so far unbridgeable by either environmental rectitude or government subsidies.
Volt's ideological critics are quick to note that Volt's lack of financial practicality is at least as damning in their eyes as the rampant cheerleading for the car by the forces of green and Obama. "I predicted before they made it that [Volt] wasn't something Americans would make a mad dash for," Rush Limbaugh, a Volt critic singled out in Lutz's post, said on his radio program Monday. "There's no business there yet." (Limbaugh said this, of course, after taking his show's first hour to address the Sandra Fluke kerfuffle.)
Gasoline prices: This is the wild card that ultimately could overwhelm the other two factors. If gasoline prices run all the way up to $5 or more after already penetrating the $4-a-gallon level across much of the nation in the last few days, Volt prospects re-boot. Once again, electric vehicles will be hailed as ready-to-roll saviors for Americans' pain at the pump, and Volt sales could be revitalized almost as quickly as they lost their charge.
Political calculus: But gasoline prices will be joined by another significant factor over the next six months: the political implications of Volt and its future.
Will GM and the Obama administration finally be successful in positioning Volt as a common-sense yet technologically enlightened solution to rising gasoline prices, a rather suddenly fitting symbol of industrial foresight that is being unjustifiably threatened by Luddites and oil-firsters on the right?
Or will the car's critics succeed in painting Volt as an example of environmentalist overreach that makes the Solyndra scandal pale by comparison, advocated by the same forces who won't help dampen gasoline prices even by building the Keystone XL pipeline?
For now, as they ponder their answers to these questions after turning off the Volt spigot for a while, GM executives also have chosen to turn down their own noise on Volt. New TV ads for the car focus on third-party endorsements of Volt's merits as a vehicle, while one recent commercial -- praising Volt production in Michigan-- seems to have disappeared from YouTube.