What do you do if you are a carmaker, and your vehicles keep self-combusting? If you are General Motors, you write and call your customers personally, offer all of them free loaners, throw your resources into an intense examination of the problem, and hold a press conference to announce all these steps to the public.
We are discussing GM's response this week to three fires during extreme stress-testing of its plug-in hybrid Volt. The get-out-in-front strategy may yet prove vain: A joint company-federal investigation may turn up evidence requiring major over-hauling of the Volt, and public opinion meanwhile could turn against GM. Already the knives are out in the hyper-politicized sector of the media long eager to vilify this early-experimental car, devised four years ago by GM CEO Bob Lutz as an answer to the Toyota Prius, as a decidedly wrong-headed and socialist creation of President Barack Obama. At Fox Business, columnist Gerry Davis writes that the fires show that the Volt is a "lemon" and an "utter disaster."
Yet, back on planet Earth, the bulk of the early reception is positive. GM said it is willing even to lend Corvettes to its Volt owners (pictured above, comedian Jay Leno with his Volt), writes the car blog Jalopnik, but the Wall Street Journal's Sharon Terlep reports that few appear to have asked for any replacement. One reason for the lack of hysteria: No consumer has had a vehicle burst into flames, reports Ben Wojdyla at Popular Mechanics, who notes that the fires instead occurred under brutal crash conditions set up deliberately by federal vehicle safety examiners. Wojdyla writes:
Back in May, [Federal inspectors] conducted a severe side-impact crash test that smashed a Volt against a pole-shaped barrier. [They] found the Volt to meet [their] five-star crash rating. After the test they stashed the mangled Volt outside, and three weeks later the vehicle's battery pack shorted and caught fire.
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Steve LeVine is the author of The Oil and the Glory and a longtime foreign correspondent.