|DETROIT - If images circulated on the Web this week are representative of the Chevrolet Volt General Motors Corp. plans to deliver in two years, the General had better hope potential customers appreciate the engineering - because the Volt's design is a corporate brownout.
AutoObserver's all-day cruise around auto-related Web sites noted heavy-traffic comment about the leaked images of the Volt extended-range electric vehicle; some are mildly complimentary, but critics seem to outnumber approvers by at least four to one.
The most common reactions range in a bandwidth from disappointment to derision. The Volt concept car was widely applauded, and although GM subsequently warned certain aggressive aspects of the Volt concept would be sacrificed on the altar of production-car realities, the overwhelming blandness oozing from the images of what is purported to be the production Volt is inescapable.
"Derivative" is a response that resonates on many Web sites, as the viral-reaction party line immediately settled on the Volt appearing to pay combined homage to Chevy's successful (but not necessarily sexy) Malibu and Toyota's almighty (but absolutely not sexy) Prius hybrid.
Ever-probing, we left the Web critics in search of more wizened opinion - auto writers and industry insiders.
"Thick," said one industry pundit. "It won't be an especially efficient four-passenger package."
"It's a huge disappointment," said Jane Nakagawa, a freelance automotive writer who is a frequent AutoObserver contributor - and a former director of advanced planning for Nissan North America Inc.
Nakagawa unflinchingly said the Volt's final styling - if that's what the images we've seen indeed portray - is "completely unacceptable. They made a big, fat promise," and didn't follow up, she said.
The slabby, conservative Volt "looks like Grandma's electric vehicle," said Nakagawa, adding that compared with the muscular concept, the production Volt is "like a mail-order bride" that arrives looking nothing like what was expected.
"I was highly disappointed by the Volt concept's silly shape," says one longtime journalist who admits to being one of the few to not like the Volt concept car.
But, "the production version looks like the unlikely lovechild of a one-nighter involving GM's concept and the Prius," the journalist continues. "While that's progress (compared to the Volt concept car's sheetmetal), I think this design will seem ancient in 27 months when it finally hits the streets. By then, we'll have a third-generation Prius, a couple of Honda hybrids (including the new Prius-fighting Insight), and other green machines to choose from."
Nakagawa goes further. She believes GM's elderly brain trust - including product-development czar Bob Lutz - failed to recognize the opportunity the Volt presented to captivate younger buyers typically considered forever lost to Detroit, instead forcing the Volt design "team" to craft an unadventurous shape.
"The No. 1 lost opportunity (with the Volt's derivative styling)," she said, "was getting young people to come and buy this car.
"It's a sad, sad moment for GM," Nakagawa said. "The Volt (concept) was a glimmer of hope the Big 3 isn't as stupid as you thought. This proves how risk-averse, unconfident and incompetent" GM management remains, she said, adding the conservative styling of the Volt seems to confirm GM management has no idea "how much different the future-tech landscape is going to be."
GM took pains in recent months to temper anticipation of the Volt's design in light of what it described as the engineering realities of meeting the Volt's performance objectives - particularly the crucial 40-mile battery-only driving range. If those cold equations really necessitated such a wholesale withdrawal from the muscular uniqueness of the Volt concept car's shape, then perhaps those goals should have been recalibrated.
But if the Volt's insipid sheetmetal is largely the result of executive meddling, GM should make every effort to change direction in the time before the tooling must be ordered. And begin to understand it's own bureaucratic limitations.
GM executives should have lunch with Bill Gates, one source suggested. Even Gates, the captain of the biggest company in the high-tech world - and a younger man than many in GM's senior management - knew when to acknowledge his ideas perhaps were no longer at the cutting edge, stepping back to let younger people chart the corporate direction.