Loyal reader Frank Szollosi tweeted a link to an interesting Chevy Volt fan site last week.

The site, gm-volt.com, claims more than 53,000 people have joined its waiting list to buy a Chevy Volt, and that they’re willing to pay an average of more than $31,000 for the car. Pretty impressive, considering the actual price of the car, after tax incentives, is about $33,000.

Curious about the numbers, I contacted the site’s owner to find out more. After all, who’s to say someone didn’t just punch in a million dollars and throw off the average?

The site’s administrator, vocal but not-affiliated-with-General-Motors-in-any-way Volt enthusiast Dr. Lyle Dennis, wasn’t eager to share with me the high, low and median prices from his data. Not because he necessarily had anything to hide, but because he didn’t really feel like digging through his database to find them. Plus, he said, he’d stopped gathering that information some time ago, and the “wait list” is actually a “support list” (I “joined” the list by entering my email address, even though, by the time I’m in the market for a new car, they’ll have figured out how to run them on seawater).

So without that context, the numbers don’t tell us a whole lot. And that raises a question. Why the sense of urgency to drum up support for what is arguably the most important new car to come out of Detroit in decades?

The car that didn’t change everything.

Part of the problem is that there’s never been a car quite like this before. In the past, when automakers have attempted to completely transform the way we look at cars, results have been mixed. Yes, the VW Beetle ushered in a new era of utilitarian compacts, but Chrysler’s turbine car (which could run on just about any combustible fuel imaginable – even tequila) never got off the ground.

Volt critics (or “haters,” as the kids say) like to point out that the car is roughly the same size as a compact Cruze but costs more than twice as much. That’s a fair criticism, and whether the Volt is a smart purchase depends on a lot of variables.

But let’s be honest here. People don’t buy cars because they’re smart investments. “Investment” is not a good word to describe something that costs a lot of money to own and, with rare exception, is guaranteed to eventually depreciate to a value of zero dollars. If car ownership was a purely rational decision, things like this wouldn’t exist.

People buy cars for a lot of different reasons. For some, it’s because they’re a functional and convenient way to get around (depending on where you live). For others, they’re as much an outward extension of their personality as the clothes they wear.

In the Volt you have an American car, built by American workers, that can potentially eliminate the need to buy gasoline. Motor Trend’s testers averaged 127 mpg after three days of fairly typical driving (getting as high as 400 mpg running primarily in electric mode).

Consider the fixation that we have with gasoline prices in this country – name another commodity that earns the top spot on local TV news when it goes up in price by a fraction of a percentage point. Does anyone doubt that there are people out there willing to pay a premium for a car that gets well in excess of 100 mpg?

And the fact is, people want to buy the car. GM recently upgraded its sales projections from 10,000 to 25,000. Not huge, but that’s more than, say, the 14,000 Corvettes that Chevy sold in 2009.

When gas hits $5 a gallon, those folks are going to seem pretty smart.

Photos by drpeppermuseum and Mulad via Creative Commons

Ken is the director of the Energy News Network at Fresh Energy and is a founding editor of both Midwest Energy News and Southeast Energy News. Prior to joining Fresh Energy, he was the managing editor for online news at Minnesota Public Radio. He started his journalism career in 2002 as a copy editor for the Duluth News Tribune before spending five years at the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, where he worked as a copy editor, online producer, features editor and night city editor. A Nebraska native, Ken has a bachelor's degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a master's degree from the University of Oregon. He is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors.