Will GM Expand the 2016 Volt’s Market, or Will it Remain a ‘Geographical’ Niche?

As the January 12 Detroit revelation of the 2016 Chevrolet Volt draws near, people are wondering whether the first plug-in car to be fully redesigned for a second generation will remain a limited-market niche product.

General Motors’ Mark Reuss has twice said in teaser videos Chevrolet will attract customers it never did before with the improved Volt. The automaker’s FaceBook page also says its New Year’s resolution is “To change the future of driving with the all-new Next Gen Volt.”

But is this marketing hype? Is it one more example of bluster that will not be held to scrutiny by a general public already not that passionate about the car?

In a piece by Forbes which interviewed Green Car Reports editor John Voelcker, little evidence was given that the answer will not be a qualified yes. It was suggested based on GM’s own more-telling statements that the 2016 Volt will remain a minority product catering to progressives in California, the Pacific Northwest, Northeast and few other places.

Despite cheerleading now going forth, and the fact the Volt is offered in all 50 states, the head of Chevrolet’s marketing effort was quoted in August saying Volt is not a mass-market car; it’s not for everyone and its maker is treating it accordingly.

“It’s an impressive product in its design, performance and technology. It’s a real halo for the brand. It’s done a tremendous amount to conquest new buyers, and they have [high] incomes like Corvette buyers. Customer satisfaction is through the roof,” said Chevrolet Chief Marketing Officer Tim Mahoney. “But the reality is that there’s a finite market for Volt, and it’s geographical. California is the epicenter; it’s not about selling Volt in Oklahoma. And we’ve gotten smarter about deploying resources for the vehicle.”

Change of Tune?

Once upon a time, there’d been talk by former GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz that the Volt was to leapfrog the country’s best-selling hybrid, the Toyota Prius.

Bob Lutz.

Bob Lutz.

Hope and hoopla surrounding the highly lauded Volt – that political candidates and others subsequently seemed to love to hate – were that the Volt would more-substantially help wean America away from oil.

“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.”

But in 2011 GM revised initially optimistic sales targets of 60,000 global units for 2012 to matching supply to demand, and last year HybridCars.com actually reported the story ahead of stories cited by Forbes that the Volt was a niche like the Corvette.

Tim Mahoney.

Tim Mahoney.

That statement by the designated media rep for the Volt, Michelle Malcho, came last January at the 2014 North American International Auto Show in Detroit who revealed GM had stopped advertising the Volt outside of California and tech fairs.

Since then, statements in April that Forbes cited by Dora Norwicki and in August as mentioned by Mahoney have confirmed a consistent message notwithstanding teaser videos and Facebook posts.

Pricing and positioning will have much to do with how the new Volt is received, as will how competent the actual product is.


2016 Volt’s Potential?

Forbes asked Voelcker about the 2016’s pricing, and he answered in a straightforward manner.

“Marketing is one of a handful of issues that will affect the success of the 2016 Volt,” said Voelcker. “Another is price: Can Chevy price a base-level Volt at $29,995, which gets it into the consideration set of far more people than its current $34,995?”

Forbes also asked Voelcker what constitutes a “mainstream” vehicle? To this he replied it depends on how one defines mass market.

GM sells far higher volumes of Silverado/Sierra pickup trucks, Cruzes, while the Spark sold only 34,000 and Suburban only 51,000. These latter levels, said Voelcker, would be reasonable to expect from the Volt in 2016 or 2017. (Through November this year, Volt is at 17,315 sales and Leaf is at 27,098 – expect December sales likely in the teens for Volt and over 2,000 for Leaf.)

To help give it a competitive edge, for a couple years or more GM has said it aims to slash production costs for the new Volt. Also hoped is it will deliver more. The new car has a 1.5-liter Ecotec generator that runs now on regular, and its electric range and fuel efficiency in charge sustaining mode are both known to be improved.

“We’re really going to excite the whole current Volt owner group but also we’re going to get customers we never got before here, with a car that’s really something special,” says Mark Reuss.

“We’re really going to excite the whole current Volt owner group but also we’re going to get customers we never got
before here, with a car that’s really something special,” says Mark Reuss.

How much improved is the question, as is whether the rear seat is truly open for three passengers making it a five-seater.

Whether these were ever deal breakers for the core fans is in question, but price and what the general public has perceived is being offered for a Chevy compact has been a deal breaker for many.

But GM has carried forth the new car, apparently has done a great job with the 2016 in improving aspects first adopters said were important. Like all automakers, GM also is working toward electrification to prepare for tightening fleet efficiency mandates by the federal government and California.

GM also was once castigated as the company that ”killed the electric car,” the original Volt helped reverse that bad rap, and had been created out of envy for Tesla’s Roadster when in 2006 Lutz asked how Tesla could use li-ion batteries, and GM had nothing like it.

Passion or Obligation?

Today questions remain whether the Volt in GM’s eyes has long-since transitioned from once-upon-a-time potential Prius beater to sacred cow the automaker is now committed to, as well as a necessary product working toward meeting mandates.

Unknown is whether GM’s revision has been under promised and will over deliver. It may very well be a new beginning for a car that’s been a focal point of ire and criticism as well as love and affection by those who “get it,” as Voelcker observed.

There is little doubt that GM's engineers have taken pride in the revised Volt.

There is little doubt that GM’s engineers have taken pride in the revised Volt.

The Volt has topped consumer satisfaction ratings, and many have said it was treated too harshly, or is flat-out not understood or even known to exist even four years after its December 2010 launch.

GM seemingly tucked its tail between its legs after the 2012 election, highly publicized 2011-2012 issues with a crash-tested car’s fire, and sales that fell well short of projections.

Now its present marketer, Mahoney, repeats the Volt is essentially like a green Corvette for the brand as the company also tries to build excitement for it.

Notable also is GM has not spun off any crossovers or SUVs or other variants from its at-times celebrated “Voltec” powertrain architecture.

But even on its way out, the 2015 Volt offers an unofficial 40 miles (38 officially) of all-electric range from its 17.1-kwh battery. The closest plug-in hybrid competitors are the Ford Fusion and C-Max Energi siblings with 19 miles.

Clearly “Voltec” powertrains have much to offer, but much may depend on how the second go-around for the Volt goes, and this is in the hands now of GM’s marketers.


And to really keep perspective, remember, the Volt is just one conspicuous product in the automaker’s alternative energy portfolio. Other doubts about its overall commitment are suggested by holes in its present product assortment – mild hybrids, no full hybrids, one electric compliance car (Spark EV), a diesel Cruze, the Volt and one expensive and now heavily discounted Cadillac ELR.

What GM’s ultimate alternative energy plans are thus remains an even bigger question as it now seeks to sell the new Volt its engineers have just improved.

In spite of other foibles, will the 2016 Volt inspire a new era for this plug-in gas-electric powertrain or as Forbes wrote, will it be “deferred” from “mainstream” status for the foreseeable future?