The same risky strategy — gambling on relatively untested technology — drove massive investments by Toyota Motor Corp in the Prius hybrid and Nissan Motor Co in the Leaf electric car.
Toyota said it now makes a profit on the Prius, which was introduced in the United States in 2000 and is now in its third generation. Sales of the Prius hybrid, which comes in four different versions priced as low as $19,745, have almost doubled so far this year to 164,408.
Other such vehicles haven’t done nearly as well. Nissan’s pure-electric Leaf, which debuted at the same time as the Volt and retails for $36,050, has sold just 4,228 this year, while the Honda Insight, which has the lowest starting price of any hybrid in the U.S. at $19,290, has sales this year of only 4,801. The Mitsubishi i, an even smaller electric car priced from $29,975, is in even worse shape, with only 403 sales.
Toyota’s unveiling of the original Prius caught U.S. automakers off guard. GM, then under the leadership of Rick Wagoner and Bob Lutz, decided it needed a “leapfrog” product to tackle Toyota and unveiled the Volt concept to considerable fanfare at the 2007 Detroit auto show.
The car entered production in the fall of 2010 as the first U.S. gasoline-electric hybrid that could be recharged by plugging the car into any electrical outlet. The Obama administration, which engineered a $50-billion taxpayer rescue of GM from bankruptcy in 2009 and has provided more than $5 billion in subsidies for green-car development, praised the Volt as an example of the country’s commitment to building more fuel-efficient cars.
GM’s investment in the Volt has so far been a fraction of the $5 billion that Nissan said it is spending to develop and tool global production of the Leaf and its associated technologies and the reported $10 billion or more that Toyota has plowed into the Prius and various derivatives over the past decade.
But there will inevitably be more development costs for future generations of GM plug-ins and it could still could be years before GM sells enough Volts to bring the cost down to break even.
The average per-car costs for development and tooling will drop as sales volume rises. But GM will need to sell 120,000 Volts before the per-vehicle cost reaches $10,000 — and that may not occur during the projected five-year life cycle of the first-generation Volt.
Parks said the company also is continuously reducing production costs on the current Volt and its successor. “There is a strong push on the cost of the Gen 2 to get the car to make money and to be more affordable . . . Virtually every component in the next-gen car is going to be cheaper,” he said.
One obvious way to pull down costs is to push up volume — but GM is paying a hefty price to do so.
The automaker just ended a special Volt lease program that offered customers a low monthly payment of $279 a month for two years, with some high-volume dealers dropping the payment to $199 a month after receiving incentive money from GM, with down payments as low as $250. The company said about two-thirds of Volt customers in July and August leased their vehicles, compared with about 40 percent earlier this year.
Before GM resorted to discounting Volt leases, sales were averaging just over 1,500 cars a month. A huge part of that reason was consumer push back over the price, according to Virag of Automotive Consulting.
Volt’s nearest competitor, the Prius, is priced at $24,795, with a newer version, the Prius Plug-In, starting at $32,795.
Parks said the sales pitch for the Volt was “difficult” because of the sticker price and the car’s technical complexity. But the discounted leases have helped lure more non-GM buyers into Chevy showrooms. Their number-one trade-in: Toyota Prius.
Raymond Chevrolet, in suburban Chicago, sells an average 1,000 Chevys a month, including three to seven Volts. Dealership president Mark Scarpelli said that “some people who like the concept of an electric vehicle find it cost-prohibitive.”
(Reporting by Paul Lienert, Bernie Woodall and Ben Klayman in Detroit; Editing by Martin Howell & Theodore d’Afflisio)