Johan de Nysschen speaks: Volt is a car for idiots

In the politically-correct world of corporate America, rarely do you see an executive throw down the gauntlet or talk a little trash. But then, Audi of America President Johan de Nysschen isn’t American and he proudly speaks his mind. Thus was the case when he reportedly called the Chevrolet Volt “a car for idiots” at a recent press event. I give him credit for taking off the mitts before he takes a swing. That kind of honesty is refreshing. Other than General Motors Maverick-in-Chief Bob Lutz and Tesla Motors hip shooter Elon Musk, it’s a prim and proper bunch occupying the C-suites.

But after admiring his moxie, I part company with de Nysschen on this one. First of all, he gets 10 demerits for back pedaling. On Audi’s Facebook page, de Nysschen later wrote, “I do not specifically recall using the term ‘car for idiots.’” Well, the journalist who was present did, and an Audi spokesman told me that they aren’t fighting it. Johan, if you think the car won’t sell or that its business case is a big-time loser, stick to your story.

More to the point, de Nysschen’s comments about the Volt are off the mark. On Facebook, he wrote: “Returning to the Volt, my point was simply one of its economic feasibility today. The 50% or so price increase that the Volt represents over a similar gasoline car cannot be offset through the savings from reduced fuel consumption. The only way to offset the extreme premium for the Volt is through taxpayer-funded subsidies. So I question if that makes economic sense.” Of course it doesn’t make economic sense. But the Toyota Prius didn’t make money from day one, either. New technology rarely does. What the Volt will do is spark interest in electric cars and help get more real-world driving with lithium ion batteries so carmakers can make improvements and reduce costs.

It will also get cities thinking about an putting up charging stations so urban dwellers can charge their cars even if they don’t own a garage. Power utilities will think about grid capacity and setting consumers up with the right charging equipment in their homes. In short, it will help electric-drive technology get from cocoon to flight. Whether it succeeds or not, the Volt and other profit-challenged cars like the Tesla Roadster and Nissan Leaf will at least be necessary steps toward the electrification of the car. That sounds far from idiotic.