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GM will buy back Chevy Volts if customers are worried about fire
   by SHARON TERLEP

DETROIT - General Motors Co. will buy back Chevrolet Volts from any owner who fears the car is a fire risk amid a U.S. safety investigation of its lithium-ion battery, the auto maker said Thursday.

The offer comes along with to GM's move this week to offer loaners to 6,000 U.S. Volt owners in an effort to reassure customers after three crash-tests resulted in fires or sparks from the vehicle's complex battery pack days or weeks after they sustained damage.

As of Thursday morning, 33 Volt owners asked for loaners, GM said. The company has been telling customers since Monday that they could return the cars, but so far no one has taken GM up on the offer, GM spokesman Selim Bingol said.

"If someone asks, we'll snap it up in a second," Mr. Bingol said. He said GM is confident the car is safe, but wants to ensure Volt customers are comfortable with their vehicle.

GM is working to head off a publicity crisis around the Volt, a car the auto maker has been touting for years as proof it cares about the environment and can deliver cutting-edge technology.

The Volt has delivered mixed results for GM since it launched this year. The car was widely lauded as a technological feat and won high praise among critics and owners. On Thursday, Consumer Reports said the Volt scored the highest rating in their annual owner satisfaction survey, with 93% of buyers saying they would purchase the vehicle again. The survey was taken before the battery issue.

But, sales wise, the car has fallen short of expectations.

GM said Thursday it will miss a target to sell 10,000 Volts in 2011. The company said it will likely hit that number early next year. The company sold 1,139 Volts in November, bringing sales to 6,142 this year. GM has around a four month's supply of Volts in inventory, which is considered high.

GM has 134 days' supply of the Volt, while Nissan has a 21-day supply of the Leaf, the only other electric car on sale in the U.S. mass market. The Leaf is outselling the Volt this year, with 8,720 sales - 2,500 more than the Volt. But, in the last two months, the Volt has outsold the Leaf. Nissan sold 672 Leafs, roughly half of Volt sales.

"The Volt isn't just about how many cars we sell," said Alan Batey, vice president of Chevrolet Sales. "This car is revolutionary."

Meantime, GM is working to address the issue that caused sparks or fires in three battery packs. The company is weighing whether to redesign the battery pack. One option may be a sturdier casing around the battery similar to the way Nissan's Leaf is built, according to people familiar with the situation.

The Volt runs on a battery and has a small gasoline motor that kicks in when that power runs down. The Leaf run on a battery alone.

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