Rush Limbaugh vs. Chevy Volt and why the pure electric car doesn’t yet make sense

Motor Trend Magazine, one of my favorite publications, just named the Chevy Volt the Car of The Year. 

Of course, Rush Limbaugh, the outspoken voice of the near whacked out extreme right wing for US politics, doesn’t like the Chevy Volt and now thinks this choice will put Motor Trend out of business.   

Rush should probably stick with his day job even though I do kind of agree that it is difficult to name a vehicle the Car of the Year before anyone has even had a chance to buy one yet. 

Personally, I do think some customer feedback would be nice to factor into an award like this but hey, that’s just me. 

So, let’s look at this two ways: what does it take to be car of the year; and why the Chevy Volt is a better choice than a pure electric.

In starting off, I did like the initial Volt prototype far better than what they ended up with.

Motor Trend Car of the Year

Looking back at the history of this award, it is mostly for US cars because Motor Trend also has an Import Car of the Year. 

This kind of suggests this award should be broken into US Car of the Year and Import Car of the Year as imports have only won this award 7 times since 1949 with 5 of those wins since 2000.

The previous 3 winners were the Cadillac CTS, The Nissan GT-R, and the Ford Fusion – suggesting the people that choose the winners either have annual personality disorders or are totally different people because I can’t imagine the same buyer wanting all three of these cars.   

But each year the car is arguably the best in its class. Motor Trend doesn’t stay in the same class, at least not that I can tell, two years in a row and the hot class coming into 2011 is arguably either the new battery hybrids or pure electrics.   

The last time they picked a hybrid was the Toyota Prius in 2004, which favored gas, and I’d agree it was clearly best of that class in that year. 
Of the new class of electrics and hybrids coming to market, and I’ve been spending a bit of time looking this, I would agree that the Chevy Volt is the best in class largely because it isn’t a pure electric car and it is affordable.

The Problem with Pure Electric Cars

The issue with pure electric cars is the ecosystem doesn’t yet exist for them and, even if it did, the required charging time and capacity for current generation Lithium Ion batteries makes them impractical for anything but short hops.  

The best pure electric in the market currently is the $120K Tesla and the very similar Lotus Elise at half the price is vastly more practical. In a head to head, the battery weight seems to kill the Tesla.

To fill up your tank with gas takes minutes but the time it takes to fully charge a battery, even if you have access to a fast charger, is typically 4 or more hours and a slow charger is more like 24. 

While this could mean a lot more friendly evenings with family and friends as your battery charges, the result is simply impractical and that severely limits the market for pure electrics.  

This was one of the big problems with the beloved GM EV1 which died an inglorious death even though it was one of the coolest cars ever made.  

Yes, IBM is working on a Lithium Air battery which boasts a capacity of around 500 miles which could solve this problem but it will likely be 5 to 10 years before it can begin testing let alone production and it, unfortunately, is one of the near term fixes to this problem. 

So, until there is either a higher capacity battery or one that can charge more quickly, a hybrid approach – which operates longer on electricity than older hybrids but still has a motor for extended trips – is clearly the better path.   

My personal favorite in this class of cars is the Fisker Karma Roadster (it also won a different car of the year award but it isn’t shipping yet and is prohibitively prices at around $120K.

One site put up a poll to see whether the Fisker or the Tesla would be more popular, the Fisker won by a landslide.

Wrapping Up: The Volt was a good Choice and Limbaugh is Full of It

Most of us kind of figured out Rush Limbaugh has little connection with reality some time ago. However, he does create controversy and it is important to look underneath his comments to better understand issues.   

In this case, the issue is that while it might be great to eventually have an all-electric car, for most of us, it just isn’t a practical choice yet.

This will likely be the decade of electric cars though as even Best Buy is planning on getting much more aggressive in this market and you’ll hear more on that next year. Interestingly enough, they could be one of the few entities that could make all electric cars a better reality in the near term. 

So why wouldn’t the Volt have been my choice for car of the year?

Well, the last time I agreed with Motor Trend was when they picked the GT-R  – which is more my kind of car. 

Sure, I can see how they got there and it is their award and their choice not mine or Rush’s (he apparently drives a Maybach, and disagreeing with either of us won’t put them out of business.  

Though I do kind of wish GM had built the Volt a bit closer to the first prototype – now that car was hot! 

Rob Enderle is one of the last Inquiry Analysts. Inquiry Analysts are paid to stay up to date on current events and identify trends and either explain the trends or make suggestions, tactical and strategic, on how to best take advantage of them. Currently he provides his services to most of the major technology and media companies. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.