August 11, 2011

A Cadillac Volt? The Horror!

A Cadillac—Volt? The Horror! Apparently it's alive! According to Fox News (here), Cadillac is planning to resurrect a 2009 concept car then known as the Converj, but in 2014. The concept car received great reviews at the Detroit Auto Show in 2009, but those reviews were based on highly polished sheet metal under lights on a reviewing stand.

According to Fox, the new car, which may have a three letter name like other sporty Cadillac (might I be so bold as to suggest the BZZ?) would use the Volt's powertrain "possibly with better acceleration to suit the Cadillac image."

The original was not brought to market for what sound like entirely rational reasons:

"First, GM could not make a profit at the low volumes the Converj had been planned for. Second, product planners were concerned that the greater weight and additional luxury features of a Cadillac would cut its electric range and performance--reducing its appeal, much as the Lexus HS 250h has sold in lower numbers than expected for Toyota's luxury arm."

For a bit of reality about the potential market for EVs, read my recent post EV Follies for August 10, 2011 (here). Rationality is obviously in very short supply at GM these days:

"Apparently, both concerns have been resolved. One reason for resuscitating the Converj, says our source, is that CEO Dan Akerson is 'all about profit.' The 2012 Volt lists at $39,990, and tops out (before dealer markup) at less than $50,000. If some Voltec cars could be sold not for $45,000 but, say, $60,000, that might enable GM to make money on its first generation of Voltec cars. Or, perhaps more realistically, to lose less money on the technology--until a less-costly second generation can be rolled out."

Not only that, there is evidence that GM has been drinking the hopenchange Koolaid:

"Now, with the Volt essentially sold out and GM trying to boost production as fast as possible, perhaps Converj volumes can go higher, meaning each car may cost less."

The article does suggest what's really going on:

"The Converj is not the only example of turbulence in GM's product plans over the last three years. But now that a deal has been reached to raise corporate average fuel-economy standards to 54.5 mpg by 2025, insiders hope that the GM product plan will settle down. To reach those goals, plug-in cars will clearly become a larger portion of GM's portfolio over time."

Fox did correctly identify two of the many major stumbling blocks of the Volt. In electric vehicles, weight and aerodynamics are absolutely vital because the state of battery technology is such that Volts are averaging no better than 25 all-electric miles in realistic daily driving. Add weight or make the car less slippery and range dramatically decreased. Add accessories that allow GM to charge more for the car and you add weight. This is compounded by the second major problem: Chevy is almost certainly losing money on every Volt they sell. I can't say that with absolute confidence, but Chevy has never claimed to make a penny on Volts, and taking into account the considerable criticism of Chevy for building an unprofitable vehicle for political purposes, Chevy would surely be trumpeting a profit--if one existed.

Notice that the article says the problems have been resolved, but completely ignores the issue of weight and range, and suggests only that if enough of the Cadillac sparky cars are sold at $60,000 each, Cadillac might eventually be able to make enough of them to make at least some profit. The other possibility is a miraculous "less-costly second generation." This would be the much-rumored second generation with a warp drive-like advance in battery technology enabling travel to the outer planets of our solar system on a single charge. No quick charging station on Venus? Too bad.

Cadillac has always been an up-market division of GM which offered two essential features at greatly increased cost: Performance and luxury. Performance is no big deal these days. It's easy and relatively inexpensive to slide a Corvette engine into an aerodynamic Cadillac shell. It is likewise easy to make a basic vehicle much more luxurious. But experience teaches us that when one or both of those features are missing, it's just not a Cadillac and won't sell.

A case in point is the Cadillac Cimmaron of 1882-1988. Based on the four door version of the Chevy Cavalier economy car, GM tried to make it a fuel efficient, small Cadillac with predictable results. Using essentially the same engine and powertrain as the Cavalier, a vehicle not noted for inspiring performance, it managed to make even worse mileage than Cavaliers while being even slower. All of the extra weight required by the luxury trappings could not conceal the fact that it was merely a tarted-up Cavalier, and not, by far, the better class of tart. Traditional Cadillac buyers found it an abomination and other drivers recoiled at paying ridiculous prices for a slower, less fuel efficient Cavalier. It died a merciful death and Cadillac has not, to date, repeated that mistake.

And the Volt is "essentially sold out?" Considering that Chevy sold a total of 281 in February, one wonders just what GM's definition of "sold out" is these days. It must be something like Janet Napolitano claiming that things on the southern border are better now than ever, or Dick Durbin claiming that the economy is great. I always thought that volume had something to do with profit in the car business, but hey, when you lead from behind, I suppose things do look different.

Here are the realities that are going to smack GM executives in their collective snouts: Sticking a Volt powertrain under a larger, heavier Cadillac is going to reduce all-electric power to the 15 mile range, while the already weak gasoline engine will seem positively tubercular to Cadillac drivers. It appears that GM is on track to repeat the brilliant engineering and sales success of the Cimmaron all over again.

The real impetus for this particular automotive white elephant is clearly the 54.5 MPG CAFE mandate required by 2025. So GM will be building ridiculously expensive EVs that make no profit and really don't work worth a damn, but grossly overpaid unions will keep their political power and ability to donate to the corrupt politicians that keep them alive. At the same time, the politicians will be able to maintain the fiction that they are environmentally sensitive while forcing Americans to drive smaller and lighter cars that are far less safe. That's hope and change for you.

See the USA in your Chevrolet, as the Dinah shore commercial used to say, but only if the USA is only about 25 miles wide.

Posted by MikeM at August 11, 2011 09:13 PM

A Cadillac body on a volt frame. What could possibly go wrong? Can you say Oldsmobile/ Pontiac/Buick/Cimmeron? Oops, never mind.

Posted by: emdfl at August 12, 2011 09:23 AM

I can actually see this working for the Caddy, provided they can stay away from some of the pitfalls of Hybrids.
1) Regular fuel, not Premium only. Just because rich people drink only the good stuff, doesn't mean their car has to also.
2) Keep the interior space and quality up to a regular Caddy. No going cheap plastic, people buy a Caddy because they want a Caddy.
3) Small battery pack, with a 100,000 mile warrantee, no ifs, ands or buts.
4) Something in the line of a small turbocharged engine, with heavy work on sound suppression. If you buy a Caddy, you don't want to hear that high-pitched whine like a tortured cat when you hit the gas.
5) Suspension, make it ride like a Caddy. Nuff said.

Posted by: Georg Felis at August 12, 2011 03:13 PM

We need to take a lead from slot car racing. All electric cars get a pair of pick-up shoes that would get power from a pair of strips. To ensure the car stays on the strips, it would be outfitted by a tongue that would sit in a groove between the power strips. It would have the further advantage of making sure cars couldn't go a wandering onto sidewalks etc.

This way you don't have to worry about batteries and battery life.

Posted by: Alan Kellogg at August 12, 2011 07:40 PM

Granted, I think electric motors in cars could be cool. The way they output could make for some really intriguing sports cars, as some of the examples in high end race cars(Such as the Porsche prototype track car, forgot what it was called, though in fairness it is also a gas/electric.). But until someone discovers something that has even remotely close to the same energy density of good ol' gasoline(Not likely soon...), or invents a cheap, micro-miniature, and efficient cold fusion reactor(Fat chance...) that doesn't get the anti-atomic bunch in a tizzy(Snowball's chance in you-know-where...), we're only going to have more of what is there now. Uber-high sticker priced microboxes that bring uber-scary maintenance costs, and are utterly useless to anyone who does even moderate daily driving, and even less if the temperature is above or below room temperature. And I won't even go into the fire hazards of a quarter ton or so of lithium under or behind you, on streets that have more and more people whose lack of attention and/or common sense should bar them from a tricycle, much less a motor vehicle. A lithium fire is impressive, even when it's source is a sub-ounce R/C aircraft battery. It's even more impressive how little it requires to initiate.

Posted by: GVii at August 12, 2011 08:18 PM