Chevy Volt sales: What's the real story?

There's no end to people's emotions surrounding GM's Chevy Volt. Those with hate-GM and/or hate-Obama agendas are duty-bound to rage against it because they resent the bailout and see the Volt as a direct result of that money (even though it's not). Those who can love only "pure" battery electric vehicles must disapprove because it burns some fossil fuel on days when it runs out of battery juice.

On the other pole is just about everyone who has spent time in a Volt, including virtually all automotive media and the few thousand owners, including a local gas service station owner who bought the second one in my area and flat-out loves it. An eco-minded businessman who also paid big bucks to install the only E85 pump in our town a couple years ago, he drives it daily and encourages customers to take it for a spin.

Volt critics seem delighted that Chevy's range-extender EV has been selling in the low three digits monthly. This is a sure sign, they chortle, that the plug-in hybrid is too pricey and/or nearly no one wants one. No doubt it's expensive ($40,000 for the 2012 model, minus the $7,500 federal tax credit), which doesn't help. But Volt sales (like the Nissan Leaf's) are still limited by short supply, not lack of demand. There are waiting lists for both.

cevy volt production line

GM says Volts typically sit on dealer lots an average of three days before being delivered to a customer. But when Ward's Auto World recently reported that 226 Volts sat on dealer lots at the end of July, critics jumped on that as a 22-days' supply (inventory divided by sales rate) – which would actually be good, since about 70 days' is average – but they failed to note that only 550 Chevy dealers had been allocated Volts by that time. So if 226 of them had one, the other 324 had exactly zero in stock.

Ward's James Amend, who wrote that story, tells me he regrets that it has been misinterpreted. "Days' supply can be very misleading with low-volume vehicles," he says.

When Popular Mechanics recently asked me to do a story on (Volt and Leaf) EV sales, I found that Volt sales were just 302 in August and 3,172 for the first eight months of 2011. We can compare this to 1,362 Leafs in August and 6,168 since January 1.

GM reports that fewer than 4,300 2011 Volts were built before the Detroit-Hamtramck plant shut down for a month in mid-June for upgrades needed to increase Volt capacity from 16,000 in 2011 to 60,000 in 2012. Of those, 784 (as of Aug. 31) had been assigned to dealers in 13 launch-market states as not-to-be-sold demonstrators, and some 300 are being used for GM engineer and executive evaluations, engineering test and development and media test cars. That leaves about 3,200 saleable Volts, which correlates well with AN's reported 3,172 total.

GM says the plant is now building roughly 150 2012 Volts per day and that Chevy dealers nationwide will be getting them by the end of this year, when more than 2,500 will have demo vehicles. GM also said that 6,000 2011s and 15,000 2012s will be shipped to Europe and other overseas markets, leaving just 10,000 2011s and 45,000 2012s for U.S. dealers.

"We expect demand to exceed supply for most, if not all, of the 2012 model year."
"Volts are being sold as quickly as they arrive," a GM spokesperson added. "We remain on target to sell every one of the 10,000 units we will build this year for U.S. consumers. Demand continues to significantly outstrip supply, [and] we expect demand to exceed supply for most, if not all, of the 2012 model year."

Of course sales would be better if dealers could sell their demos, but GM believes that retaining them for folks to see and drive is more important: "Although it's tough to limit the number of Volts for sale to potential customers when demand is so strong, the dealer demo program is the right strategy as the vehicle is drawing new customers into our dealerships." See also: Cruze sales.

cevy cruze

Then there is the laughable theory that GM and the federal government are conspiring to cover up weak sales of what one web writer calls, "an unwanted, over-priced vehicle that has no measurable benefit to the environment." Really? So GM must be lying when it reports owner satisfaction data better than on any GM car ever, then?

An amazing 97 percent of Volt owners say they are "completely" or "very" satisfied, while the other three percent are merely "satisfied." They report driving more than 1,000 miles (or about 30 days), on average, before refilling their gas tanks, and that two-thirds of those miles are on electric "grid" power. Nearly 90 percent of those who traded in vehicles for a 2011 Volt traded non-GM cars and are new to Chevrolet, and 35 percent considered no other vehicle.

This agenda-driven writer also claims that "billions of taxpayer dollars are being funneled to GM for production of green vehicles." Really? That would be great news to the incredibly dedicated and hard working team already laboring on the next-generation Volt and Voltec powertrain (and a variety of other EV, hybrid and fuel cell vehicles)... if it were true.

Perhaps GM could falsify owner survey data for a short while, if it believed it worth the trouble. Of course, the company would inevitability be embarrassingly caught. How in the world could anyone believe they could hide poor sales of any vehicle for long with relentless global media focused on U.S. sales, especially Volt/Leaf performance?

It is entirely possible that the high cost – and therefore a high price – of the Volt and other extended-range EVs will limit demand to where they will eventually start piling up on dealer lots. But with production so slow and supply so limited, that is far from happening right now and likely won't over the next year.

By the time supply does catch up to (and maybe pass) demand for the current Volt, there may be a more efficient and affordable Gen II ready for launch (that'll be the subject of a future column). But if GM were not confident, would it be investing in Gen II and expanding its EREV range to Cadillac and other brands and products? And would other OEMs already be showing EREV concepts that may or may not be heading for production?

We'll all see soon enough how Volt – as well as Leaf and other BEVs – will perform over time in the U.S. market. With no investment or agenda, my view on Volt's prospects has evolved from skepticism to cautious confidence. But show me a real inventory build-up or some seriously dissatisfied owners, and that opinion could change.


Award-winning automotive writer Gary Witzenburg has been writing about automobiles, auto people and the auto industry for 21 years. A former auto engineer, race driver and advanced technology vehicle development manager, his work has appeared in a wide variety of national magazines including The Robb Report, Playboy, Popular Mechanics, Car and Driver, Road & Track, Motor Trend, Autoweek and Automobile Quarterly and has authored eight automotive books. He is currently contributing regularly to Kelley Blue Book (www.kbb.com), AutoMedia.com, Ward's Auto World and Motor Trend's Truck Trend and is a North American Car and Truck of the Year juror.

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