Pleasanton Weekly

Column - September 10, 2010

'Car guys' should check out the new Chevy Volt

by Jeb Bing

My dad was a car dealer and I remember the excitement about this time every year when we would watch the new-model-year cars being offloaded from trucks at his downstate Illinois dealership. It was that same enthusiasm I found with GM's Shad Balch two weeks ago at the Chevrolet dealer in Dublin where he showed me the new Chevy Volt, one of two on display in the East Bay as part of the national GM Outreach program, which is designed to bring more customers into the company's showrooms. The Volt, a four-seater all-electric car, did just that with several hundred seeing the car for the first time while also enjoying a sunny Saturday outing with the family, including valet parking outside and a sit-down lunch served by Kinder's Restaurant of Pleasanton.

Balch, who describes himself as a true "car guy," grew up in Pleasanton where his family still lives. Four years ago, as General Motors started restructuring, Balch left his policy position with the Schwarzenegger administration to join GM in its turn-around effort. He is now GM's Western Region environment and energy communications specialist, with an office in Southern California's Thousand Oaks. Balch is on the front line in the company's new strategy to engage its current and former customers one-on-one and to lure them back to a General Motors product. The Volt, with its stylish eco-friendly features, looks like a sure bet to win buyers who'd like to cut their fuel bills without sacrificing safety, convenience and power in their cars. The Volt can go about 40 miles on its fully-charged battery before a small gasoline engine automatically kicks in to keep the battery charged for the next 300 miles or so. Fill up the engine and keep going.

I couldn't drive the Dublin car, but Balch assured me it's an unbelievable experience. Because the car is electric, it has full horsepower and torque at the start, quickly and smoothly going from zero to 60 mph in a matter of seconds. There's no transmission, just extraordinary power and absolutely no engine noise. It's unlike any hybrids on the road and can be charged in about nine hours overnight using a standard household plug. Stay within 40 miles between charges and you never have to buy gasoline. The car lists for $41,000 but with various incentives, can be purchased for about $32,000. The battery comes with a factory warranty good for eight years or 100,000 miles, which Balch says is the best in the business.

Besides seeing GM's new pride and joy, I also had a chance to visit with some of the 40 executives, engineers, vehicle development teams and marketers from GM's Detroit headquarters who are participating in these Volt launch parties to "re-connect" with customers. It's a strategy the company should have tried 10 years ago before so many of its customers fled to other brands, but it seems to be paying off. In its recent fiscal quarter, GM posted a $1.3 billion profit, which was the first time the company posted a profit in the last four years. Although it's repaid its government loan, the feds still have a majority ownership stake in GM. That could change soon with a new public offering of GM stock.

Balch said at least a dozen customers signed up to take delivery of the Chevy Volt at the Dublin outreach program. Deliveries should start in November with the 2011 models expected to be sold out from the start. Most will be sold in California where Balch and his associates are planning more showroom events in the state that used to be GM's largest market. By building enthusiasm for the Volt, other GM products are also picking up sales as buyers start eyeing the new models being introduced. For "car guys," and hopefully for GM, this could be the best year ever.

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