Think GM's Volt Is Failing? Think Again

DETROIT -- ( TheStreet) -- October ought to have been a bad month for Volt. Gas prices were falling. Auto industry wisdom had it that with so many conventional cars closing in on 40 miles per gallon, why would anyone spend $30,000 for a compact? Also, the last month of the presidential campaign reinvigorated advocates of the political construct that anything government does -- particularly saving GM ( GM) -- is bad.

Nevertheless, Volt had its best month ever in October, selling 2,961 units. This broke the record, set in September, of 2,851 units sold. That broke the August record of 2,831 units. In fact, Volt sales have increased for six consecutive months. For the first 10 months of 2012, sales totaled 19,309. Sales totaled 7,671 in 2011 and 326 in 2010.

The trend is good, especially for a car with a $40,000 list price and incentives worth around $10,000, although full-year sales will not be close to GM's one-time goal of 45,000 sales in 2012.

"I don't think Volt is where GM and Chevrolet want it to be," said Polk analyst Tom Libby. "They sold about 3,000 units in October, while the industry sold 1.1 million. They are getting volume up from where it was, but the number is very low relative to what it needs to be accepted and to meet GM production goals. Also, as a footnote, even if the number were to double to 6,000 a month, GM is still losing a lot of money."

Still, for GM, Volt is an important car becoming more important. "Volt took GM in the opposite direction from where Hummer took it," Libby said. "In terms of image, it was a positive step." Moreover, image equates with economic necessity. A 2011 agreement between the Obama administration and 13 large automakers increases the federally-mandated Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standard to 54.5 miles per gallon for cars and light duty trucks by 2025. The high standard "will require electrification on a very large scale," said GM spokesman James Cain.

Last week, GM said it will have up to 500,000 vehicles on the road with some form of electrification by 2017, with a focus on plug-in technology.

"The unique propulsion technology pioneered in the Volt -- the same technology that will be featured in the Cadillac ELR -- will be a core piece of our electrification strategy going forward," the automaker said.

Volt did not seek a role as a political symbol. As GM CEO Dan Akerson said in January, when he appeared before a congressional committee investigating the alleged "cover-up" of a Volt safety investigation, "We did not engineer the Volt to be a punching bag, but that's what it's become." Edmunds.com said Friday that some Volt owners have reported acts of vandalism, such as slashed tires, expletives on the windshield or, in one case, being run off the road, evidently as efforts to express outrage against the car.

In explaining Volt's recent sales gains, a key step came in February when the car gained eligibility for a coveted California's Clean Air Vehicle Decal, enabling single-driver access to high-occupancy vehicle lanes after GM added a low-emissions package. Now "we're getting a lot of traction in California," Cain said. Additionally, incentives valued by TrueCar.com at about $10,000 -- including a $299 monthly lease rate for the 2013 model -- have boosted sales. The Volt is eligible for a $7,500 tax credit.

The incentive spending reflects intense competition for green buyers between Toyota's ( TM) Prius, the world's best-selling hybrid; Nissan's ( NSANY) Leaf; and Volt. The three offer differing technologies. Volt uses electricity stored in a battery to power it for 35 miles, then switches to a gasoline engine that powers an electric generator to extend the vehicle's range by about 300 miles. The Leaf is battery powered and has a range of about 73 miles. Prius has a gasoline engine that shuts down when the electric one suffices.

GM said six of 10 Volt sales are "conquest" sales to buyers who previously owned other brands: the top trade-ins are the BMW 3 Series, Honda ( HMC) Civic and Prius. But Volt sales will likely slow this month due to low inventory after production is suspended for four weeks to allow for retooling so that GM's Hamtramck plant, where Volt is built, can also build the 2013 Impala.

Volt's price is high because the cost of introducing new technology is high, but "we're working hard to bring it down," Cain said. "Each new generation should bring it down further and keep us on the road to profitability. (It takes time) to get experience with the technology, to get more efficient battery packs. You just can't miracle this stuff."

Kevin Bullis, energy editor of the MIT Technology Review, recently wrote an essay titled "As GM Volt Sales Increase, That Doesn't Mean It's Successful." He remains skeptical. "It is too early to know how things are going," Bullis said, in an interview. "The Volt is doing well, but still falling far short of what GM had originally claimed it would be doing by this point.

"The costs are very high because battery costs are still high and the whole architecture of the Volt is expensive," he said. "It has everything you put in an ordinary car, plus a more expensive and complicated transmission, a huge battery, and all the power electronics that go into controlling the battery. There is no way this kind of architecture will ever be as cheap as a pure electric vehicle or a pure internal combustion engine.

However, "over time, battery costs come down," he said. "GM has made a lot of investment in bringing down battery costs and there are a lot of interesting technologies around. Then you start to talk about does it make sense economically (if) it pays for itself in a few years.

"I don't want to come across as thinking this cannot work," he said.

-- Written by Ted Reed in Charlotte, N.C.

>To contact the writer of this article, click here: Ted Reed

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