General Motors (GM) really wants you to love the Chevy Volt.
It's clear why: GM spent a fortune to develop the innovative electric car, and made it the symbol of the Detroit auto giant's comeback. It even got its own Super Bowl ad. And as the few who have driven one know, it's really a very nice car.
But the Volt has been a slow seller, thanks to everything from a high sticker price to election-year politics that have turned what should have been a symbol of American ingenuity into a "political punching bag," in the words of GM's CEO.
But is that really why the Volt isn't selling? After all, one of GM's biggest hit products is pretty much the Volt's polar opposite -- the fire-breathing Chevy Camaro.
This is Chevy's Hot-Selling, Gas-Guzzling Dynamo
If the Volt is what GM thinks of as the future, it's ironic that one of its biggest current hits is a car that represents some of the best (and worst) of GM's past: The Chevy Camaro, which in the popular SS trim packs a wicked 426-horsepower V8, and a fuel economy rating of just 16 miles per gallon.
The Camaro, first introduced in 1967, was a huge seller for GM in the 1970s and 1980s, but declining sales and worries about fuel economy led the General to discontinue the model after 2002. GM executives seemed convinced that the Camaro's day had passed, but the continued success of Ford's (F) similar Mustang persuaded the General to design a new Camaro and show it to gauge reaction.
The reaction was great; crowds loved it. And buyers have loved the production version, making it the top-selling car in its segment -- $4 gas notwithstanding. While the Volt failed to hit its (modest) sales target of 10,000, GM sold almost 90,000 Camaros in 2011.
The Camaro's sales success has been a much-needed bright spot for General Motors as it works to revamp its hit-or-miss product line. But with the no-longer-quite-so-new Camaro reaching the automotive equivalent of middle age, and with all automakers under pressure to improve fuel economy, GM now faces a big challenge: How do you redesign a car that has become an icon?
Keep the Mean, Add the Green
According to a recent report in the trade magazine Automotive News, GM engineers and designers are in the early stages of work on the next new Camaro, due in 2015. There's no question that the new car will reflect significant changes from the current one. It'll almost certainly be smaller and lighter. Reducing size and weight improves a car's performance, handling, and fuel economy, all at once.
Its engines will probably get smaller, too, at least in base models. The current entry-level Camaro uses a V6, but it's possible that the next one will use a four-cylinder -- maybe with a turbo, so that performance stays strong. And while the famous Chevy V8 isn't going away anytime soon, expect the next generation of that venerable engine to incorporate more fuel-saving technologies, and maybe, in time, a hybrid system.
A Hybrid Camaro?
GM hasn't hinted at the possibility yet, but I wouldn't be surprised to see a hybrid Camaro by the end of the decade. Plug-in hybrid technology, like that found on the upcoming Ford Fusion, could help engineers "square the circle" of offering a powerful V8 engine in a car that still gets great mileage.
Imagine a Camaro that ran on batteries, until you floored it, at which point the big V8 would instantly come to life. You'd get all the fun of a fast-accelerating sports car, with the economy of a hybrid.
If the Detroit automakers are serious about keeping their V8s around, hybrids like that are probably inevitable. Given all of the car-guy dislike of "green" cars like the Volt, won't that be ironic?
At the time of publication, Motley Fool contributor John Rosevear owned shares of GM and Ford. The Motley Fool owns shares of Ford. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Ford and General Motors and have also recommended creating a synthetic long position in Ford.