Is the Chevy Volt Destined To Remain GM’s ‘Niche’ Product?

Introduced as a concept at the 2007 Detroit Auto Show, the first production Chevrolet Volt was sold December 2010, but now and until further notice, its maker classifies it as a “niche” vehicle, and has ceased pushing it as a mass-market car.

“It’s not, just like Corvette is not being mass marketed,” said Volt media rep Michelle Malcho last week at the Detroit Auto Show. “It is more of a niche style of product.”

Actually, all plug-in cars still comprise a sub-market, but some of the Volt’s most ardent supporters including on the GM-Volt forum have wondered whether General Motors is managing its potential as well as possible.

While GM points to major research, development, and manufacturing investments, it limits Volt advertising to a few targeted audiences. Its tone is also much less strident than that of Nissan, Tesla, other incumbents – and GM’s own management when the Volt was being developed and through the first year after its launch.

The Volt is yet America’s best-selling plug-in, but its over-56,000 cumulative sales saw no gains from 2012 to 2013 with 23,000-and-some sold each year. Nissan’s Leaf, launched the same month, was similarly flat in the 9,000-range from 2011 to 2012, but it’s catching up and stretching toward 3,000 units per month.

GM showed this Volt-based MPV5 crossover concept in Beijing in 2010, but no plans to build it or anything like it have been announced.

GM showed this Volt-based MPV5 crossover concept in Beijing in 2010, but no plans to build it or anything like it have been announced.

Both it and Tesla’s Model S were trading places with the Volt in the top-three through 2013 and Nissan is approaching 44,000 sold.

According to GM, the Volt’s technology is now seed stock being transferred to cars like the Spark EV sold for now in California and Oregon only, and other future cars – some of which may plug-in, and some not.

A second-generation Volt is also underway, but despite consumers asking GM to leverage the Volt, no average-priced “Voltec” spin-offs have been announced, and Chevrolet says Volt sales are not expected to be remarkably different this year.

Malcho said the market has given GM a reality check and it is now taking things as they come.

Ironically, Detroit is where it all started, and seven years later that is where Chevrolet unequivocally stated while the day may come, the Volt is not ready to change the game.

Hopeful Birth

When it was conceived in 2006 by former GM vice chairman Bob Lutz and ace engineer Jon Lauckner, Lutz said the Volt was intended to “leapfrog” the Toyota Prius, America’s top-selling hybrid.

GM’s marketers never projected the Volt would crush the Prius out of the gate but they did forecast a better run than it had. In 2011, 60,000 sales were predicted for 2012: 45,000 in the U.S. and 15,000 exported as the European Chevrolet Volt, Australian Holden Volt, German Opel Ampera, and UK Vauxhall Ampera.

After missing its target in 2011 with 7,621 sales, GM revised its stance, saying instead it would “match supply with demand” and it has not amended this statement since.

But even supplies last year were in question, as GM re-tooled the Detroit-Hamtramck plant for new versions of the Impala and Malibu, and reduced Volt production somewhat, according to automotive analyst, Alan Baum.

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Baum noted also Chevrolet’s dealers are not compensated for the often lengthy process necessary to qualify and possibly even educate potential Volt consumers. Chevrolet’s dealers are independent franchises and while some are known to promote the Volt, others have steered buyers toward other cars.

These and other realities were however not foreseen when in the mid-2000s Bob Lutz thought to take back market share and prestige from Toyota.

“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 Lutz to SFGate in November 2011, adding he was irked by praise Toyota received. “’They don’t have the same profit motive we do, and they really care about the environment, and this is the car of tomorrow, and dumb old Detroit obviously couldn’t have done this.’ I was gagging on this stuff, because it was all so patently untrue.”

Lutz said he was goaded by Toyota and Tesla’s all-electric Roadster coupe, and as EV proponents today await Tesla’s “200-mile range” electric sedan some time around 2016, Lutz said that in 2006, such a vehicle was his first proposal.

“See, I wanted to do a 200-mile-range concept car, essentially what Tesla did, except mine was going to be a four-door sedan,” said Lutz, recounting the pre-Volt days. “The lawyers said, ‘Bob, are you crazy? We and every other automobile company are in litigation with the state of California over the state’s electric-vehicle mandates, and right in the midst of this litigation, you want to put an all-electric GM vehicle on the show stand?’ And I said, ‘That is a compelling argument.’”

After this and other concerns over profit potential, Lutz said Lauckner approached him about a comparatively cost-effective design with smaller li-ion battery and gas-powered range extender. A market case was thrown together for the “extended-range electric vehicle” (E-REV) that was to be a cure for “range anxiety,” and initially its price was optimistically estimated in the upper $20,000s.

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Since a $5,000 price reduction in August 2013, the now-$35,000 Volt can now be had for $27,500 after a $7,500 federal subsidy. Discounting and potential state subsidies have seen some Volt purchases net around the $23,000 range.

But when it was first released, GM faced critics for a Chevy commanding $40,000-and-up, not to mention some dealers adding thousands to the sticker. The Volt also became the car some politically oriented media and Republican presidential campaigners loved to hate. That plus a federal investigation into a post-crash-test battery fire, and the fact GM had been financially resuscitated in 2009 blurred the gleam of what is actually a well-engineered car.

To date, no plug-in hybrid yet sold travels as far on battery power as the Volt’s 38 EPA-rated miles. The Volt has been highly awarded, and it topped customer satisfaction surveys two years straight, ousting the Porsche 911.

People who’ve owned or driven the Volt more often than not praise and defend it.

However the compact Volt does have less rear seat room than a mid-sized, 22-mile-e-range Ford C-Max Energi or Fusion Energi.

Also unknown is whether a chilling effect has come from GM’s own former CEO Dan Akerson hinting at Generation 2 which could have as much as 50-60 miles all-electric range.

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Some consumers won’t buy the first generation of any big-ticket product, and GM has effectively said if you can wait, something much better may be in the pipeline.

What is more, even if more would buy the present Volt, surveys have shown many remain unaware of its existence, or hold misconceptions, or simply do not comprehend how it works – and how it can benefit them.

For the past three years, fans on the GM-Volt forum have periodically talked about crafting a memorable sound bite that could spoon feed the concept that the car travels electrically for the first 38 miles or so, then on gas for around 342 more.

This persistent difficulty downloading the Volt’s message to the cerebral cortex of the collective unconscious was reconfirmed when Malcho said Chevrolet is pleased with progress thus far, but has given up pushing harder.

“I’d say it was a very interesting year for electrification overall. I think the market showed that there’s interest in electrification but yet it’s still not a huge segment,” she said, “its not a mainstream segment as maybe what we would have thought a couple years ago … there’s still a lot of people who don’t quite frankly understand it.”

Despite that, this month GM is launching the Volt-based Cadillac ELR starting at $76,000. The Volt was called a “halo” for Chevrolet, and the ELR is to be a “halo” for GM’s corporate crown.

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Unknown is how this premier compact Caddy will be worked around with an improved Gen-2 Volt that cannot afford to technologically upstage it in any major way.

And to top it all off, the “car guy” who started the E-REV revolution is now singing a different tune.

While Bob Lutz is called “the father of the Volt” by plug-in truck start-up VIA Motors, of which he is on the board of directors, this month he said GM erred with the Volt.

“We started at the wrong end. The whole automotive industry made the intellectual mistake of thinking EVs were all about maximum range, so we all started with small vehicles that are basically very economical anyway,” said Lutz of GM to the Seattle Times. “Yes, you do save fuel. You can use a smaller battery, but it makes less sense to take a 40 mpg vehicle and make it electric than it does to take a full-size pickup or SUV, which in town realistically gets 11 to 12 mpg.”

But Lutz no longer represents the voice of GM. Malcho does however represent the Volt and she did not say it was a mistake, but the under-comprehended car is targeted to California and narrow audiences that are believed to be more receptive to the message.

“I would say we focus our advertising really in California to be honest, it’s our number-one market,” she said. “So if you live in California you probably see a lot more from Volt and Chevrolet than you do in other places.”

Also the car is highlighted at tech conferences, and earlier this month at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, “Volt was center stage.”

“We choose to proactively showcase the Volt in tech spaces where people are more likely to understand what it is more than [with] mainstream advertising because of all the products Chevrolet offers; we find more success there,” she said.

SEE ALSO: How Committed Is GM To Vehicle Electrification?

Citing Nissan and Tesla, we asked whether GM could somehow more “proactively” speed up the Volt’s acceptance? Could GM find more creative marketing possibilities?

GM knows its fans remain devoted even as BMW, Ford, Fiat, Mercedes-Benz, Audi, Mitsubishi, and other automakers ride GM’s coattails into the plug-in space.

For now, GM still has the most-proven “Voltec” powertrain that could be used for vehicles positioned not up-market like the ELR, but to average income people, as GM first said was its intent, and as Chevrolet otherwise does target.

Malcho offered no elaboration on GM’s strategic thinking. GM says it is not in its best interest to telegraph its intentions to competitors but it does not mean to be left behind.

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However, a hint was offered last week by Kevin Kelly, manager, Electric Vehicle and Hybrid Communications, who mentioned the Spark EV has an over-achieving powertrain.

When asked whether GM’s pure-EV efforts were only trying to make the grade, he replied if that were so, why would they have put a 400 pound-feet motor in the Spark?

This big motor could be used for various larger EVs.

GM has also said it must do more to meet EPA and California emissions and mpg targets for 2017-2025, but GM has officially said little about potential all-electric products thus far.

The Competition

Looking at the other top-three sellers – both of which have had more-recent success with battery only vehicles – yesterday we asked Nissan and Tesla about their marketing plans and vision for proliferating EVs.

“From the beginning, our stated goal with Leaf was to be the first mass-market EV on the road,” said Erik Gottfied, Nissan’s director of EV sales and marketing. “We continue to demonstrate that commitment in a number of ways.”

These include expenditures for domestic manufacturing and marketing to 20 key U.S. markets, he said.

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“Nissan is also making significant investments through a multi-pronged approach to increase charging infrastructure in markets across the country,” he said. “This is good for our customers and it increases awareness and consideration for electric cars.”

Gottfried said these led to Nissan’s 130-percent sales growth in 2013, and word-of-mouth endorsements add to paid advertisements far beyond California.

“Sales continue to rise in traditionally strong EV markets like San Francisco, LA, Seattle and Portland, but we also saw sales pick up momentum in 2013 in markets across the country such as Atlanta, Salt Lake City, Denver, Dallas, Houston, Washington D.C., Chicago and others,” he said. “We only expect growth in those markets to get stronger as more people learn about the great value and driving experience that Nissan Leaf offers.”

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As for Tesla, a reply was not provided, but its story is already known to most. It is daring the establishment with its unique retail store model, a no-excuses large electric luxury performance sedan, a Supercharger network, and is garnering so much free press, it does not need to spend on advertising.

Despite its costing double-to-quadruple a Leaf or Volt, the Model S finished with 18,650 U.S. sales last year compared to Leaf’s 22,610, and Volt’s 23,094.

Last year Tesla also began pushing a similar plan into overseas markets.

Market Still Growing

The U.S. is now in the fourth year of the new-wave major manufacturer plug-in market for which the Volt was a co-founder.

While once represented as full of promise by a brash, outspoken Bob Lutz, one of GM’s present spokesmen, Kelly, said last week of its electrification efforts, “The way that we’re going to do it is with deeds, not words.”

But one word we do have is GM has readjusted its expectations for Volt.

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Another is from GM’s new CEO Mary Barra, who this month said electrification will increase as technology matures.

Meanwhile GM has a technology it’s seen fit to put in its new top-tier ELR halo, but no others.

Regardless how GM is perceived in managing its opportunities, the Volt’s primary contribution – its very existence – has put down roots, inspired others, and there will be more innovation, whether from GM, or from someone else.