How Much Better Does Gen-2 Volt Need to Be?

The Chevrolet Volt’s popularity has been hit or miss, but what would it take to make it the solution it was originally meant to be?

We may find out next year whether GM makes it a “game changer” as intended from its December 2010 launch, or whether it will remain a minority player.

Last week Edmunds.com reported an anonymous source – was the source from GM, a supplier? – said the second-generation Volt would be revealed in 2015 as a 2016 model.

The generation-two car, the source told Edmunds, would receive a new platform as had been reported in 2012, but only mentioned aesthetic revisions.

“It is different, but not drastically different,” said the source. “Just really a bit of a styling change to it.”

No hints were made by Edmunds’ source about improvements to the new Volt’s powertrain, price, rear seating accommodations, and if these are only minimally updated, will some say GM just doesn’t get it?

After half a decade since the first one, and a decade since the concept version, will this be another “moonshot” that makes a loud noise, but falls short of launching into orbit?

It’s not out of the question. In January we reported Chevrolet has quietly relegated the Volt to a “niche” that it’s not even trying to mass market. This revelation made people question whether GM was in it to win it or the old mission statement was something it would rather forget.

Toyota Prius Liftback.

Toyota Prius Liftback.

Remember the original mission? It was supposed to be a Prius beater.

“Basically, it was born out of my frustration at the deification of Toyota, because of the Prius. All the senior executives of Toyota were about to be officially anointed as saints,” said former GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz in a November 2011 SF Gate interview.

In its favor, the Volt’s 38 mile EPA-rated range is the longest of any plug-in gas-electric car yet sold. And it pushed the Porsche 911 out of the way in topping Consumer Reports’ owner satisfaction survey in 2011 and 2012. And it won numerous awards, but none of these were for dethroning Toyota.

Last year, Toyota sold 145,000 Prius Liftbacks despite it also being late in its product life. Both it and the Volt had flat sales growth, but the on-its-way-out Prius still managed 145,000 sales compared to the niche Volt’s 23,000.

Early plans were for Volt to sell 45,000 in 2012 with presumed growth, but after extreme pushback and lackluster sales in 2011, GM revised estimates to a benign, non-committal “match supply to demand.”

Does GM really want an “extended-range electric vehicle” on steroids that would not only compete with top-selling hybrids but that could also put a dent in its own mild hybrids and other economical car sales?

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Do we have to look only to Tesla for the least-fettered advancements as fast as technology and funds will allow? Is Tesla right that major automakers have inherent conflicts of interest not to cannibalize their existing sales?

Or, was Edmunds’ anonymous source merely “sandbagging” as some commenters on the GM-Volt.com forum said of the news?

Was the purported leak possibly PR damage control for GM’s former CEO Dan Akerson who has gone off script with promising hints of a vastly improved next-generation Volt?

GM is in an awkward position where people slap it either which way. If it promises great stuff, it might harm present sales. If it says nothing, people think it’s not committed.

It’s also outliving a legacy which inspired its new CEO Mary Barra to say “no more crappy cars.”

The company says it is committed to electrification and to be fair to the present Volt, its 38 miles EV range means it accomplishes its core purpose of providing all-electric driving with gas backup better than any other car yet sold.

Click image to expand.

Click image to expand.

It’s also price competitive now at $35,000 and qualifies for a higher federal tax credit than the 22-mile-range $33,000 Ford C-Max Energi and 14-mile-range $30,000 Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid.

But its image was tarnished by being the poster child of post-bankruptcy General Motors; it was attacked during the last presidential campaign as a car Obama likes, underwent a media circus due to overblown fire concerns, and was initially priced at $40,000 which ain’t cheap for a compact Chevy.

Besides that, as GM has said – and Toyota also says of its limited market plug-in Prius – many consumers just don’t get it. Also, some consumers simply won’t buy generation-one of any product, and in any case sales prove it’s not perceived as a no-brainer.

What the Volt needs is a makeover, so let’s discuss a few possibilities …

Generator

Presently the Volt has a 1.4-liter four-cylinder gas generator that requires premium gas and gets an EPA-rated 37 mpg.

This makes it not only the worst on gas-only operation of competitive plug-in hybrids, but the gas costs more too.

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When deciding between one of the others, or even the regular 50-mpg Prius hybrid, the term “trade-off” comes up a lot.

Basically, gas mileage is no issue with the 38-mile or so Volt if your daily range is in the EV zone. Even once it starts to burn gas, its operations cost are pretty cheap and the cost average between electricity and gas make it less expensive to run up to a point.

Longer distance drivers however have to think long and hard whether a Prius or other high-mpg car would make more sense.

Various reports have gone out that GM could use a three-cylinder smaller displacement engine that uses regular gas. Something like this or even a more efficient four-cylinder would help it a lot.

Offering a sport mode or variant that could boast 0-60 mph in 6-7 seconds to place it ahead of the 7.2-secondf Camry Hybrid would be nice too.

Bottom line, the Volt could use mpg in the 40s to put it closer to the competition, or over 50 mpg which would let it beat the new Prius which may get 55 mpg next year, and Honda’s new Accord Hybrid which easily gets 47 mpg combined.

Electric Range

Former CEO Dan Akerson has said things like the future Volt could get at least 20-percent more range if not as much as 50-60 miles.

It would be great if he really was spilling the beans and the Edmunds report is a case of under promising and over delivering, rather than the other way around.

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Some drivers are fine with the Volt’s real world range which can be as low as the 20s in freezing winter, and 50 miles or so in ideal conditions.

Most people following these cars have heard of studies showing that around three-quarters of Americans drive fewer than 40 miles per day, and can thus keep the Volt in 100-percent EV mode the whole time.

But even Volt fans have expressed the desire for a bit more. A pure EV like the Nissan Leaf may be good for over 90 miles in ideal conditions, and less in not ideal conditions.

A Volt that could easily pull off 48-55 miles electric range would make it far more attractive, especially considering it employs a thermal management system that heats and cools the pack, unlike the Leaf. The Volt’s pack has proven to be robust, not losing range with cells dying off prematurely, and it’s believed GM erred on the safe side.

GM’s engineers conservatively set up the Volt’s 16.5-kwh pack to use only 10.8 kwh of this. The Cadillac ELR uses a bit more from the same pack, and other EV makers use much higher percentages.

Getting more range could be a matter of simply reducing the “buffer” meant to preserve the battery, or stuffing in a few extra kilowatt-hours, or chopping weight from the nearly 3,800 pound car. It’s already very aerodynamic so improvements there won’t likely do much to buy more miles.

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Ironically, the Volt’s extra heft has been cited as helping it do better in crash tests. The Volt hits hard like a mid-sized car.

Talk of using a different chemistry has also circulated. Word of a collaboration with Envia systems was that more energy density could be had, but that tech now appears to be vaporware.

What else GM has besides is unknown, but it operates what may be the largest battery lab in existence, and lots and lots of engineering talent.

To those who think GM cannot do better, it would be misguided to underestimate its capabilities. It has already said it will match Tesla later, and whether it can do so is of little doubt as the technology is available in the public domain.

The question is does GM have the will to execute what its fans would dearly like to see?

Seating/Room

The Volt is a four-seater with a T-shaped pack occupying the center tunnel. GM-Volt founder Lyle Dennis – from whom I took over in February 2011 – sold his Volt and bought a five-seat C-Max Energi to accommodate his kids in his growing family, even though it has less range.

That was a sore point for GM, and ironically, GM was the one who developed the “skateboard” chassis that Tesla now proudly showcases.

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Its flat floor lets the designers do what they wish. Whether GM goes this far or otherwise redesigns the battery to allow for five passengers will be something fans are eagerly waiting to see.

GM monitors its fan base and has heard it hundreds of times. Will it come through?

And while we’re at it, with the new platform, depending on wheelbase and design, a couple extra inches of rear knee room would be welcome.

It’s a compact class car – the C-Max Energi, Fusion Energi and Toyota PHEV are all midsized.
Good thing a lot of people don’t carpool – in the California HOV-with-solo-driver eligible car – as has been encouraged, because the Volt would scrunch up taller people if they all tried to cram in.

A new Volt needs to be more accommodating.

Price

What a new 2016 Volt will sell for largely depends on what its engineers are allowed to do in redesigning the car.

Reports that GM is losing money on every one have been plentiful. Really only the accountants know whether the Volt has been a liability GM cannot back away from but is loathe to go forward with because of the financial equation.

GM executives from Europe and Akerson also have said the next Volt will have more than $10,000 in costs cut out of it.

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Will GM whittle away costs without reducing quality? No one knows, but it plans to slash its costs – and this does not guaranty it will pass all this on as savings on the window sticker.

Frankly, if GM can bake in more range, room, and gas mileage, the present price would be far more reasonable.

If all GM does is trim costs, restyle it like the source told Edmunds, it had better pass along some savings and bring the Volt down a few thousand. This will be especially true if the federal tax credit goes away.

Price cuts look like it could be the way GM goes too, if statements Akerson made last May prove to be the case.

“This next generation, we think we can decrease the price on the order of $7,000 to $10,000,” said Akerson speaking at Fortune’s Brainstorm Green conference in Laguna Niguel, Calif.

The fantasy wish list wants it all. We have no indication any of it will be made available, but some balance of the wished-for items must be given to improve the value proposition.

Also, if GM can improve the car’s desirability in the eyes of the general public, it could sell in volume and make up for slim margins.

If Elon Musk or Carlos Ghosn were at the helm what would they do?

Both Tesla’s and Nissan’s CEO are going for broke to prove their plug-in cars are mass market solutions for today.

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To date the Volt has sold more than any other plug-in car in the U.S. but this is a qualified statement, and it and the Leaf which is catching up did have a head start.

Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) regulations are pushing all automakers to search for cost-effective solutions.

That GM could design a game changer is not really a question. The question is will it?

Is it worth it to GM, and does it fit its plans?

No one knows because it plays its hand so close to its chest.