For those of you who missed it, GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz hit the talk show circuit last week to talk up the latest incarnation of the Chevy Volt (more on his boneheaded climate change comments here and here). The marketing goal is to create the public perception that the Volt is an electric car (get it, volt?), to differentiate it from competitors like the Prius, which are mere hybrids. It may work, and I’m OK with that as long as it sells low-emission cars. Look at how successful the car industry was at getting us to covet station wagons with oversize tires by calling them “sport utility vehicles.”

The Volt will not be an electric car. It will be a hybrid, specifically a plug-in hybrid. As with all other plug-in hybrids, it will have extra batteries that can accept a charge from the grid that will propel it without using the gasoline engine for some distance dictated by battery size and driving conditions. But once that charge is used up, it will drop into hybrid mode and stay there until you can plug it in again. The public doesn’t — and if GM is successful, probably never will — understand that the Volt is just a plug-in hybrid. It will not fully recharge its batteries using the gasoline engine. An attempt to do that would wreck its gas mileage.

My beef here is that GM is using smoke and mirrors to convince the public that the Volt is a revolutionary new car when it really isn’t. The reality is that GM is still years away from producing something to compete with the Japanese hybrids and at $40,000 a copy it is guaranteed not to have mass appeal. Toyota plans to be producing a million hybrids a year by 2010. Nobody knows what mileage the Volt will get when it drops into hybrid mode after the grid charge is used up, but it will probably be pretty lackluster.

I watched Lutz explaining to a talk-show host why the Volt is going to cost so much. Lutz pointed out that if you are going to have a regular engine with a gas tank and an electric motor with a battery, you will have to pay “twice as much.” Which all sounds very logical but, oddly enough, just a few weeks ago Honda revealed its plan to sell a hybrid in 2009 that will cost significantly less than a Prius — around $18,000. You could buy two of these for the price of a single Volt. This is evidence that the price difference is no longer in the hybrid drive train. From Scientific American:

The new Insight will be powered by the latest iteration of Honda’s Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) hybrid technology, which will be significantly cheaper than its current systems, according to press reports. The IMA is a parallel hybrid system with an electric motor mounted between the engine and transmission to act as a starter motor, engine balancer and traction motor assist. The new, more cost-efficient powertrain accounts for the low price tag, making it potentially the most affordable hybrid model on the 2009 market.

Carmakers have all figured out by now that its distinctive look is part of the Prius success story. Part of the fun of driving a high-mileage hybrid is bragging about it. GM planned from the start to make the Volt distinctive looking as well and the original prototype fit that bill nicely. You may or may not recall my musing in a past post about how carmakers will manage to obtain both high mileage and a distinctive new look every year if they are constrained by shapes dictated by wind tunnel tests, wheel size, and so on. Interestingly enough, the latest version of the Volt, which has a shape largely dictated by wind tunnel tests, has morphed into something that looks an awful lot like a Saturn Aura (hybrid version gets 25 mpg city).

There are two main camps out there: those who hate the Prius (and the people who drive them, and all they stand for), and those who do the same for Hummer drivers. The Volt may attract many from the Hummer camp. They can drive a high-mileage car without looking like wusses and it will also be an American-made car worthy of a God Bless America sticker on the bumper. You can see how this will all work out in the end for the environment with both camps driving high-mileage cars while at the same time retaining their individual self-images.