For an ordinary car, 100,000 sales worldwide is not a big deal, but considering what the Chevy Volt has been through to get this far, in this case it is.
The plug-in electrified vehicle that’s plowed the ground for others to follow crossed the milestone some time last month, two months shy of its five-year anniversary on the market.
Counting more than 9,900 rebadged and re-trimmed “Ampera” variants sold under Opel/Vauxhall nameplates in Europe, the tally through October is actually close to 102,000.
In this count are 84,656 Chevy Volts delivered in the U.S. and 5,023 in Canada through October, plus through September are counted with help by sales tracker Mario R. Duran around 1,750 European market Chevy Volts and 245 Holden Volts in Australia.
Among top European countries which absorbed the car, the Netherlands accounted for 52 percent of sales, or 4,976 Amperas and 1,065 Volts. Germany bought 1,539 Amperas and 73 Volts, and the UK took 1,250 Amperas and 124 Volts through June.
The best two U.S. sales years for the Volt at 23,000-and-change each were 2012 and 2013.
Passed Through a Gauntlet
Launched in a multi-staged rollout beginning December 2010 as a 2011 model year, the Volt is solely made at the Detroit-Hamtramck plant, a point of pride and hope for American advanced-tech engineering, even as the car did fall short of early sales projections.
It was never promised to outsell the platform-sharing Cruze, which on a good month can sell 24,000 units. Chevrolet did however have higher aspirations for the Volt and its Voltec range-extended electric powertrain, but as is euphemistically said, plans changed, as did the tone once expressed by the original “Volt Team.”
Going into it, GM knew it faced major opposition, as relayed May 2011 by the original Volt media rep, Rob Peterson at the Electric Drive Transportation Association conference in Washington D.C.:
“Most importantly, our greatest opportunity isn’t an opportunity to actually move the football past the goal line. It’s an opportunity to make sure that we don’t lose any ground,” Peterson said of the Volt he’d represented since 2007. “This is very important. There’s no question that our industry – this movement, EVs – is in the cross hairs of people that want to challenge the relevance of electric vehicles.”
“There are groups out there – pundits and detractors – who desperately want to see this not succeed. I don’t want to say fail, they just don’t want to see it succeed,” Peterson said, “They will go to great lengths to try and challenge the success of what we’re trying to achieve here. We can’t do anything about it, quite frankly, except to protect our ground, but what we can do is make sure that we that we manage our expectations, and customers in the industry and of our dealer force appropriately.”
To lay out a point-by-point saga of the gauntlet the Chevy Volt faced would be its own feature-length article, but briefly, to say it was tripped out of the gate is an understatement.
The car was introduced at a low point in GM history following a bankruptcy and restructuring.
The New GM faced numerous critics with varying bones of contention entering the 2012 presidential election season and former GM CEO Dan Akerson was so tired of it by 2012 that he said the Volt had become a “political punching bag.”
It was distressing for supporters to see the Volt treated like a scapegoat if not alternately ignored, misrepresented, or dismissed, but this did happen.
It hadn’t been one year in production before headlines blew up a story over a 2011 federal side-impact crash test and fire that slowly smoldered a couple weeks later. This amplified “concerns” over the Volt as people wondered about this new kind of tech, and whether it was a good idea.
GM’s own checkered manufacturing history also gave little confidence, and many took pause at the notion of a compact Chevy launched at just under $40,000 despite its eligibility for a $7,500 federal tax credit and potential state incentives.
Confounding the negative synergy was a general lack of comprehension surrounding the Volt. It came with all-new technology, and consumer polls showed the average person’s grasping of what this car could do or why they should buy it or care was generally low.
Nor has this yet been fully dealt with. Volt proponents have repeatedly documented an incredible mental blind-spot shrouding the Volt from peoples’ awareness. It was as though the car wore an invisibility cloak or something,
The simple concept never registered for countless people that this car could work like a pure EV for 75 percent of all peoples’ daily driving needs, or up to 35-40 miles, with gas engine backup for “no range anxiety.”
GM had initially projected 60,000 global sales for 2012, but by the end of 2011 had quit making projections, and said it would just match supply to demand.
By 2013 GM stopped marketing the car altogether outside of tech fairs where people did “get it,” and California, the state where it sold the highest volume – as much as 50 percent of nationwide sales.
Add to this slanted articles cherry picking data to allege the Volt was a loser by a loser company – and maybe even a tendency of some Americans to ambivalently view domestic manufacturers – and this starts to describe obstacles the Volt faced.
None of this helped launch a new technology where on principle people may sit on the fence letting others buy first, assuming prices and performance will get better, and not wanting to be part of an experiment.
There were several more factors as well, including dealers which were not compensated to walk consumers through a more-complex sale than for an ordinary gas car, but these are some of the major ones.
Of course there have also been a contingency of very strong Volt supporters, but for every positive point in its favor, there was a counterpoint and whether justifiable or not, the Volt did feel the brunt of it.
The Volt’s public relations roller coaster ride was at times a veritable travesty to anyone sympathetic and paying attention. For those who were in the Volt’s camp, the car was after all meant as a first step toward projecting U.S. technological leadership with the idea things could be improved from this initial product. It was to be a bridge to help wean off petroleum more effectively than a regular hybrid.
A Winner In Qualified Terms
The 100,000 cumulative Volt sales were just accounted for by first-generation 2011-2015 cars, and October also saw 1,324 U.S. market 2016 generation-two Volts delivered.
With the fully revised 2016 Volt, GM is starting over with marketing and rolling out the car now improved over generation one.
In fact, even gen-one Volt surpasses any other plug-in hybrid other than the limited utility BMW i3 REx in the all-important electric range department.
All-electric range is the most important characteristic leading to why people pay up for a plug-in hybrid, and GM’s original 2011-2015 “extended range electric vehicle” is still ahead of PHEVs from Ford, Toyota, Honda, Porsche, and others that have since come along.
The gen-one Volt is capable of running up to 100 mph without the gas ever coming on in EV mode. It can drive for 35-40 miles depending on the battery sized from 16.0-17.1 kwh.
This five-year-old drive unit in its powertrain has been highly praised by engineers and the Volt surpasses the next-best 19-mile Ford Energi blended plug-in hybrid siblings. Unlike the Volt, these also will turn on the gas engine with a firm push of the accelerator, and operate less like a pure EV with extended range. The original Volt’s range also tops the pending 27-mile Hyundai Sonata PHEV.
The Volt also saw two years in a row atop Consumer Reports’ owner satisfaction ratings in 2011 and 2012, and bumped the Porsche 911 in the process.
Its battery, once a cause of concern for some, has been revealed to have been remarkably trouble free.
“We’ve seen what I would call pharmaceutical levels of quality in cell production,” said GM’s Larry Nitz, executive director, Global Transmissions and Electrification, this year, “Of the more than 20 million cells that have been produced for the first generation Chevry Volt, we’ve seen less than two problems per million cells produced.”
The Volt battery pack employs liquid cooling, and was conservatively set up with only 65 percent usable energy for gen one to spare it greater hardship, and ensure long life. Nitz reported these packs using LG Chem cells have after three years of ownership retained nearly all of their original charge-holding capacity.
The all-electric Nissan Leaf, by contrast – launched the same month and having sold twice as many – saves costs without the active thermal management system the Volt gets. Its battery early on had heat-related charge-holding capacity degradation in Arizona, California and Texas. Nissan upped it warranty, and tweaked the battery, but the Volt was done right from the beginning.
Because of these factors and more, those who do fully like what the Volt represents have been generally loyal, with only a short list of known complaints. One is the compact car is short in back seat space, a deal breaker for some compared to the midsized competitors.
And aside from contemplating the car in the abstract, people who actually drive one find the Volt to be quicker and nimbler than America’s best-selling hybrid, the Prius, and with incentives and discounts, net pricing can be on par too.
Now building on this, the 2016 Volt is just launching.
Where is This Going?
GM’s challenge will still be getting the message across. The company specializes in bread-and-butter cars, trucks, SUVs, and the Volt is now relegated to being a “tech halo.” This is not the original intent former Vice Chairman Bob Lutz once declared when he said things about leapfrogging the Prius, but today’s top Chevy marketers have said that is not relevant to today’s mission.
Not an especially encouraging sign already is Chevrolet was going to introduce the new Volt to all 50 states this year before December, but changed plans. Why? Chevrolet said it wants to refine its deliveries and dealer/customer processes and experiences in 11 states following California zero emission vehicle rules. After it focuses first on that, 39 other states will get it next spring as a 2017 model.
Fans have said they want to see GM sell it like it means it. They’d also like to see spinoffs in crossover and SUV and other styles, something GM has never committed to.
But working in the new Volt’s favor is this is now round two. Some of the rancor directed toward “Government Motors” has faded over the past half decade, so we shall see.
Having passed through what some have called unfair treatment, the Volt is back. Will its next 100,000 sales come sooner, or not?
Reviews thus far are mostly positive, and a public including those with a short memory is in cases hearing about the car as though they just grew ears.
The first car also got good reviews, but then all the extraneous factors summarized above happened. Today the Volt is a virtual grandfather among plug-in cars, if it’s not premature to call it that.
It along with the Leaf was the first of the major manufacturer plug-in cars, and it is the first of the plug-in cars to receive a full redesign.
It’s still a compact, that will still be a problem for some, but it is better – better than the already good first generation Volt that itself surpassed competitors in vital ways, if not all.