At recent campaign stops in Georgia and Oklahoma this holiday weekend, Mr. Gingrich echoed what is becoming a widespread Republican criticism: The Obama administration is unfairly using federal dollars to give the gasoline-electric plug-in hybrid preferential treatment.
On Saturday, Gingrich told an audience in Suwanee, Ga., that the Obama administration “is deeply opposed to Americans having the right to choose the kind of car they want to drive” and likened the vehicle to “cultural warfare.”
In the past year, Republicans have similarly taken aim at federal standards to phase out cheap but energy-inefficient incandescent light bulbs, saying that manipulation of markets to promote energy savings has hurt the budgets of everyday Americans.
In some respects, though, the Volt is an even more potent political symbol for Republicans because of its links to the Obama administration – both through the controversial bailout that saved Chevrolet and ultimately gave rise to the Volt, as well as the $10,000-per-car subsidy that President Obama's new budget proposes.
“The Volt has been a lightning rod even before we got into the heat of the campaign season,” says Bill Visnic, senior analyst with Edmunds.com. For detractors, it objectified “why the bailout was wrong,” because it produced a vehicle that “mostly rich people buy and is mostly subsidized by the government.”
Chevrolet introduced the Volt in late 2010. Chevrolet's parent company, GM, is one of two Detroit automakers the federal government helped bail out in 2009 to prevent it from falling into bankruptcy. Mr. Obama mentioned GM's recent sales rebound in his State of the Union speech, declaring, “Today, General Motors is back on top.”
The Volt, an electric-gas hybrid that can travel up to 400 miles on a full charge and a full tank of gas, is one of the only two hybrid plug-ins currently on the market, along with the Nissan Leaf. Toyota plans to introduce a plug-in version of the Prius this year.
Chevrolet's data suggest that Volt buyers have an average household income of $170,000. The sticker price for the 2012 Volt is $31,645.
In a case of role reversal, Republicans have said that federal subsidies for cars that appeal mostly to rich people show that Obama is out of touch with ordinary Americans. Obama has repeatedly said that Republicans are out of touch with ordinary Americans because they refuse to consider tax increases on the rich.
Gingrich and many Republican pundits want to end subsidies for the Volt and all electric vehicles. Currently, the federal government provides a subsidy that allows for a $7,500 tax break for buyers of "advanced-technology" cars, including plug-in hybrids. Reports suggest that under Obama's new proposal, that subsidy would increase to $10,000 but could be given solely to the manufacturer – making it an incentive for manufacturers to produce electric cars, though manufacturers could pass those savings onto consumers.
The proposal is part of the administration’s goal of having 1 million advanced-technology vehicles on the roads by 2015.
But Republicans have suggested that the Obama administration might be cutting corners to meet that goal.
In January, the US House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform held hearings to investigate whether the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration went easy on General Motors after a Volt caught fire following a crash test early last year.
The committee was investigating the six-month lapse between the crash test and the federal safety probe. Some Republicans suggested that the Obama administration was lenient because it is invested in helping to help make the venture a success.
During the hearing, Rep. Mike Kelly (R) of Pennsylvania displayed a slide of Obama sitting behind the wheel of a Volt at a GM plant, saying that the vehicle “is a halo car, not so much for General Motors, but for this administration. If General Motors thought this was a good investment, they would have launched it themselves.”
The attacks on the Volt correspond to a recent decline in sales: Volt sales dropped 61 percent in January from the previous month, according to Autodata. At the hearing, GM CEO Daniel Akerson complained that his company “did not engineer the Volt to become a political punching bag, and that’s what it has become.”
According Mr. Visnic of Edmunds.com, the sales drop likely has to do with nonpolitical factors: the Volt's limited utility, consumer confusion regarding the technology, stable fuel prices since the summer, and a sticker price that is much higher than for most compact cars.
GM, he says, has largely stayed out of the fray “with a large amount of restraint.”
On Tuesday Mr. Akerson told the Detroit News: “Our job is not to be politically oriented. Our job is to make the best of our second chance and we’re trying as hard as we can.”