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NINETY EIGHT REGENCY

GM's Volt electric car more than a head-turner -- it's a job saver

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GM's Volt electric car more than a head-turner -- it's a job saver

BY CHRISSIE THOMPSON

FREE PRESS BUSINESS WRITER

On its first road trip last week, from a Detroit factory to consumers' garages near New York City, the Chevrolet Volt made a lot of people happy.

In Mitch Seaton's eyes, the Volt saved the Detroit-Hamtramck plant where he and his wife, Carmen, have worked for 13 years to support their family of six. They never saw a plant more upbeat than when it started building the first extended-range electric car -- a bit more than a year after GM's plunge into bankruptcy.

By Monday, more than 300 Volts were lined up proudly in the plant's parking lot -- just 4 miles from Henry Ford's early Model T factory -- ready to show that Detroit remains a cradle of cutting-edge automotive technology.

Five truck drivers loaded 45 snow-covered Volts onto their carriers and began what trucker Eric Norvell called "a cross-country race."

"I want the American car manufacturers to get back on top," Norvell said after he reached Gearhart Chevrolet in Denville, N.J., where detailer Teddy Faura was ready. He hosed off the Detroit snow and began preparing the nation's first consumer Volt for its buyer.

That customer, Jeff Kaffee, 69, of Parsippany, N.J., traded in a 2005 Toyota Prius for his Volt.

"I like buying American products," said Kaffee, a Realtor who is a former pilot and a lover of technology. "But frankly, up until recently, my choices, I felt, weren't there."

The next day, Anthony Innocente, 29, of Jackson, N.J., brought his father and brother to Pine Belt Chevrolet to pick up his Volt, which he boasted would be a head-turner. Said Innocente: "It's beautiful. It's futuristic."

Volt makes history as it whirs along highways

DENVILLE, N.J. -- Technician Paul Budzinski insisted the Chevrolet Volt was "just a car."

The half-dozen Gearhart Chevrolet employees watching his every move on Tuesday night seemed to think otherwise.

Budzinski has worked 30 of his 46 years as a technician. He wasn't nervous prepping the Volt extended-range electric car for the first customer delivery in the U.S. He checked the tire pressure, installed a rubber air deflector under the front bumper to help aerodynamics and added a front license-plate holder. Then, he plugged it in.

General Motors first announced the Volt extended-range electric car at the 2007 Detroit auto show, kicking off a four-year journey to releasing a green car it hoped would define its image as the Prius had done for Toyota. The post-bankruptcy automaker is seeking to win back Americans pushed away by years of disillusionment.

For Robert Juliano, the Volt is already working its magic.

Juliano, 58, is director of sales and marketing at Gearhart, a job he started a year ago when the Saturn store he was managing closed with the death of the brand.

"I felt very let down by General Motors since they discontinued our product," Juliano said. The Volt will solidify GM's move in the right direction, he said. "I think we can sell as many as they allocate to us."

In the spotlight

"Where's this new car?"

Mike Weldon, a night patrolman for the Denville Police Department, walked into the Gearhart service garage. He had heard of a Denville officer's plans to direct traffic Wednesday morning outside the store and wanted to see what the fuss was about.

"It's an electric car, with an optional gas engine if you need it," Juliano explained.

Weldon walked over to a new Volt and noticed both the touch screen and the touch-sensitive buttons -- like patrol cars' touch screens and keyboards, he said -- and tossed the lightweight hood up and down. Then he asked about gas mileage: an equivalent of 93 m.p.g. on a full battery charge, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

"Whoo!" he said. "Not bad at $2.90 a gallon of gas."

Around 9 p.m., the car was ready for detailing. Teddy Faura rinsed it, soaped it, rinsed it again, accompanied by Christmas music piped into the garage.

Next up was a wax, then the windows, door jams, tires, rims and interior. That usually takes 30 to 40 minutes for the 22-year detailer, so other employees started heading home.

This time, Faura worked until 11 p.m., cleaning the car's glass several times to make it perfect.

Where's that Prius title?

Jeff Kaffee didn't sleep much Tuesday night.

His journey to get his Volt started Tuesday in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., when he found out his car would arrive at Gearhart that night. At 3:30 p.m., he booked a ticket on a 9:30 p.m. flight to Newark, N.J.

He got to his home in Parsippany early Wednesday, searched for the title for his trade-in 2005 Toyota Prius -- he never found it -- and finally went to bed around 2 a.m. About three hours later, the big day came.

And then, as he was walking out the door to pick up his electric car, the power at his home unexpectedly went out.

"But that's not a problem with the Volt," Kaffee said later, referencing the gas-powered generator that takes over when the Volt's battery runs out of charge.

That could be a problem with a Nissan Leaf, however. The new all-electric car was delivered to its first customer last weekend. The Leaf's range is about 70 miles, according to the EPA, or up to 100 miles, according to Nissan. It has no generator to keep it going once the battery is depleted.

An unexpected dealer

Judy Schumacher-Tilton wasn't supposed to see this day -- not as a dealer, at least. Her father, Harold Schumacher, borrowed $500 in 1932 to start Schumacher Chevrolet in nearby Little Falls, N.J.

"It was always going to be my dad and my brother, (Kenny)," Schumacher-Tilton said.

Her father died in 1998. And at his funeral, Kenny Schumacher said he felt ill. Five days later, doctors said cancer would take him in three months. Schumacher-Tilton became a dealer to help the family cope. Her brother died in 2001. Schumacher-Tilton, now 64, has followed the Volt since GM unveiled it at the 2007 auto show.

"I always felt it was the comeback kid for GM," she said. "I knew GM was going to get through their troubles, and it would be the premier car for General Motors."

She has experienced the troubles firsthand. The Tilton Automotive Group bought Gearhart in May 2008, just before the financial crisis hit.

When she walked into the dealership just before 7 a.m. Wednesday, she reached out and touched the Volt's window, right where an EPA sticker proclaimed its 35-mile electric range.

"It's a great car," she said. "Isn't it a great car?"

$38,778.67

For Kaffee, the Volt is a return to buying from Detroit automakers.

In the 1960s, when he was an Air Force pilot, he drove a Chevy Impala Super Sport. Later, he had a Chevrolet station wagon that accommodated his two sons, and after that, cars from Chrysler and Lincoln.

In 2005, he switched to the Toyota Prius, which he considered the most technologically advanced car of its day. He wanted the Volt for the same reason.

"I like buying American products," Kaffee said. "But frankly, up until recently, my choices, I felt, weren't there."

On Aug. 19, he had put down a $100 deposit -- less than the $500 Gearhart had originally proposed -- to get one of the store's first Volts.

Ultimately, Kaffee's Volt would cost $38,778.67, minus the trade-in, and including document fees and taxes.

Hold that pose

Kaffee arrived at the dealership just before 7:30 a.m., and 15 minutes later, his silver Volt backed into the showroom -- sans exhaust. Kaffee snapped photos along with a growing group of photographers.

Someone at Gearhart knows someone at CNBC, said Chief Financial Officer Stephen Tilton, Schumacher-Tilton's son. So the store made a call Monday, and within 15 minutes, CNBC was booked. A news release followed; more than a dozen reporters and cameras showed up.

Even Eric Norvell, the car hauler who had delivered the Volt the night before, returned to watch the car reach its rightful owner.

"The future is here, and America is back in the game," Schumacher-Tilton said as she gave Kaffee the Volt's key -- three times, to accommodate all the photographers. Kaffee pushed the car's start button. The only sounds are a quiet techy whir and a constant ding: He'd left the door open.

Locked in the showroom

About 10:30 a.m., the hoopla reached a new phase: Kaffee drove the Volt out of the dealership and onto a New Jersey highway.

Kaffee had never taken a test-drive before placing an order, instead trusting the accolades that the Volt had accumulated. Those honors include the Motor Trend Car of the Year award.

His impressions of the car?

"Fabulous. The quiet, the smoothness, the instant power and acceleration. We didn't do anything wild or crazy, but the car drives well," he said. "I can't wait for the day when General Motors is building 100,000 a year instead of 10,000."

Kaffee has a 5-mile commute to his real-estate office, so some days he may not use any gasoline. On long drives with clients, he might use a gallon of gas after his battery charge runs out. With the gasoline generator, "you don't have to really change your lifestyle," he said.

Later that day, at 7 p.m., Kaffee had to catch a flight back to Ft. Lauderdale for his last week and a half of vacation. He planned to take his owner's manual with him.

But first, one last order of business: securing his first vanity license plate: VOLT1.

Until he returns, his Volt will stay locked in Gearhart's showroom.

Grabbing attention

Car hauler Norvell's delivery of the Volt was the final leg of the car's four-year journey to market.

When a group of unionized drivers found out they would be the first to leave Detroit-Hamtramck last week with Volts, 57-year-old Norvell used his 15 years of seniority to request a spot on the team of five trucks destined for metro New York City and Washington, D.C.

Nonunion trucks would serve Texas and California later in the week.

Norvell, of Sheffield Village, Ohio, left late Monday afternoon and drove the first Volt, original snow intact, onto Gearhart's parking lot about 27 hours later.

"I wish they were cleaner from the snow," he said. "They'd stand out more."

He said the cars still attracted attention at the hotel he stopped at on his way to New Jersey.

For the first time in his career, Norvell stuck around to watch the Gearhart employees prepare the car.

Some of the Gearhart staff was seeing the car for the first time. Not me, Norvell told them. He first saw the Volt six months ago at GM's proving ground in Milford, when he helped test whether the front end would clear bumps in between decks on the transport trucks.

Vanna White of the Volt

Long before Norvell was helping GM practice loading the Volt, Sheryl Brown was driving it.

The 14-year Detroit-Hamtramck worker first drove the car on a frigid winter day in 2009, when GM brought a hand-built model from the Warren Tech Center to test how it fit some of the plant's assembly line. She alone received authorization to drive the Volt around the plant that day.

"It was amazing to get in that car and start it and hear nothing," she said.

That earned her a D-Ham nickname.

"The Vanna White of the Volt," she said. "That's me."

Bigger plans

The Volt's success is crucial to the plant, which also builds the soon-to-be-discontinued Cadillac DTS and Buick Lucerne.

The longtime Cadillac assembly at the plant helped workers feel secure, the 44-year-old Brown said. But when they heard the DTS would soon disappear, they started to worry -- until they heard about the Volt.

GM plans to build 10,000 Volts by the end of 2011 and at least 45,000 in 2012, when GM plans to sell the Volt nationwide. For now, the car is on sale only in California; Austin, Texas, and metro New York City and Washington, D.C. This spring, sales expand to Michigan, Connecticut, and the rest of New Jersey, New York and Texas.

GM CEO Dan Akerson has said he has a gut feeling that demand will require additional Volts in 2012, so the company is studying ways to double or triple production. The plant is currently running only one shift; many of GM's North American plants are using three shifts.

Words from Rattner

"There is no scenario under which the Volt, estimable as it may be, will make any material contribution to GM's fortunes for many years. Green jobs may be the fad of the moment, but in supporting them need to forgo irrational exuberance."

With these words, Steve Rattner, former head of the Obama administration's auto task force, summed up Wall Street's feelings about the Volt.

Each Volt costs $40,000 to build -- not including development costs, Rattner said in his recent book, "Overhaul." The car's suggested retail price is $41,000, minus at least $7,500 in federal and state tax credits.

GM's intent is to make the Volt profitable by the end of its first generation -- usually five or six years, Volt Chief Engineer Doug Parks has said. Cost-saving changes, he said, could eventually include an engine smaller than the current 1.4-liter, four-cylinder generator.

But the automaker developed the Volt for a far higher cause than pure profit-making.

Advice from Lutz

GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz, now retired, had been pushing for an electric car since the mid-2000s, as Toyota leveraged the image of its Prius hybrid to boost all its sales.

When a little California start-up called Tesla Motors moved toward building an electric sports car, "I nearly blew my cork," Lutz said.

"I said, 'I'm sick and tired of Toyota basking in the glory of being the world's most environmentally sensitive automotive company,' " Lutz recalled. "I said, 'The only way to stop it is to put something out there.' "

EV1 missed mark

At about the same time, GM OnStar President Chris Preuss, who was then handling GM communications out of Washington, D.C., put together a white paper that featured the "iCar."

Drawing on the halo Apple was receiving from its iPod, the white paper said GM needed an iconic car, preferably an electric, to shape its image and help save its eroding market share.

GM had tried to go electric before, when it built the EV1 from 1996-99. But the car had missed its mark, executives felt, in its high cost, its complicated charging system and the limits of its 140-mile battery range. Innovative doodle

Jon Lauckner, an engineer who then headed global vehicle development and now runs GM's venture-capital arm, offered Lutz the solution in a 15-minute fountain-pen doodle session.

His idea was innovative: Why not offer unlimited range and cut costs by using only a small battery pack -- say, one that could provide enough range for three-fourths of drivers' everyday trips -- and include a gasoline engine purely as a generator to take over when the battery ran down?

About a year later, in 2007, GM introduced the Volt concept.

"When you've got a reputation that's heading in the wrong direction, you've got to come up with a kind of signal that pulls everyone over to what you want people to believe about you," Lutz later said.

YouTube videos

Thanks to all that hard work, Anthony Innocente has a new car to love.

When he first saw YouTube videos of the Chevrolet Volt, he was hooked -- especially after he found out the car's lease started at $350 a month, less than the $399 he was paying on his 2008 Jeep Liberty.

The 29-year-old gas station employee ordered his Volt in August, partly because he worried about the sharp rise and fall of gas prices he was seeing.

Innocente has a 2-mile commute to work, so he said he might only need to charge once a week.

"A dollar-fifty a week," Innocente said, referencing the cost GM estimates for the electricity for one battery charge. "That's big."

Congratulations!

Just after 1 p.m. Thursday, the dark gray Volt entered the showroom at Pine Belt Chevrolet in Lakewood, N.J.

Innocente couldn't stop smiling.

"Congratulations for the 100th time," General Sales Manager Dan Ariel said as he handed Innocente the key to the first car solely in his name.

Innocente's father, Salvatore Innocente, and his younger brother, Dominick Innocente, who came along for the trip, oohed and aahed over everything -- even the air pump for flat tires, cargo cover and the Volt cap the dealership gave Anthony Innocente.

Dominick Innocente sat behind the wheel.

"This is the only time I'll get to sit in this seat," he said.

Anthony Innocente said that was probably true. No one else was allowed to drive his Jeep, which he wiped down every day when he came home from work and decked out with aftermarket chrome everywhere possible.

"It's a nice Jeep. Turns a lot of heads. But I'm sure my Volt is going to turn more," Innocente said.

Driving in the snow

Innocente had never seen or driven a Volt until he took it to his home in Jackson, N.J., on Thursday in a New Jersey snowstorm.

He said his favorite feature was the colorful touch screen showing weather, radio and battery information. He loved the way the touch-sensitive buttons below the screen glowed blue in the early-evening darkness.

Innocente pulled gingerly into his garage, his father watching eagerly. "Whoo," he said, as he pushed the off button and heard the techy "shooom" sound effect of the Volt powering down.

Out stepped Innocente. Into the wall went the 120-volt charger that comes with the car. Into the car went the other end.

For a moment, the charging light on the dash turned yellow. Innocente held his breath.

Then the light turned green. The horn chirped.

"There you go!" his father said.

Innocente laughed.

link:

http://www.freep.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20101219/BUSINESS0101/12190589/1331/Business01/GMs-Volt-electric-car-more-than-a-head-turner&template=fullarticle

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