Jonathan Cohn

Low Voltage

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Auto industry buffs love the Chevy Volt, the new electric car from General Motors. But buyers? Not so much. At least, not yet. Chevrolet sold just 281 Volts in February, after selling just 321 in January. The car is selling far better than its closest competitor, the Nissan Leaf, but the volume is obviously low.

GM says the problem is lack of supply, not lack of demand, and that sales will pick up once the company can make more cars. Fast Company has the story:

Slow sales of the Volt are actually part of a planned strategy, explains Volt spokesperson Rob Peterson. A significant portion all Volts produced in February were sent to dealers as demo units (all Volt dealers get a demo so that customers can take test rides).

"I wouldn't go so far as to say that sales were down, I would say that more production was earmarked towards demos," Peterson explains. "There are some Volts that are out on lots, but not many. The average daily inventory is the lowest in our fleet, if not the lowest in the industry. They're landing on the dealer lots and they're gone."

Sales will probably start to rise after April, when all 600-plus Volt dealers have their demo units.

That seems reasonable enough. Not so easy to dismiss, though, is a review just in from Consumer Reports. The magazine's drivers were happy enough with the car's style and performance. But they found that the battery discharged more quickly than expected, sometimes after just 23 miles of travel. At that point, the car started drawing on its gasoline engine.

What does that all mean for the consumer? Once you account for the cost of electricity, according to the magazine, a Volt driver spends about about 5.7 cents per mile while the car is in all-electric mode and 10 cents per mile when it's in gasoline mode. Drivers of the Toyota Prius spend 6.8 cents a mile. (The Prius is a more traditional hybrid, shifting constantly between electric and gasoline power, so there's just one cost figure and not two.)

If you use the car strictly for short trips, and charge between drives, you're still spending less per mile with the Volt. But the Prius is far cheaper, even after government tax credits, and for that reason Consumer Reports says it can't recommend the Volt. Via the Detroit News:

"When you are looking at purely dollars and cents, it doesn't really make a lot of sense. The Volt isn't particularly efficient as an electric vehicle and it's not particularly good as a gas vehicle either in terms of fuel economy," said David Champion, the senior director of Consumer Reports auto testing center at a meeting with reporters here. "This is going to be a tough sell to the average consumer."

Of course, GM made a deliberate decision to target upscale car buyers who want an all-electric car, rather than the average consumer looking for the smartest buy, with its first-generation electric vehicle. In addition, Consumer Reports ran its tests during the coldest weeks of winter, when batteries deplete faster.

Then again, GM presumably hopes to sell the Volt in northern states as well as southern ones, so performance in cold climates isn't exactly irrelevant.

Notwithstanding all of the hype--including any I might have helped create!--it's not as if the future of GM or even the future of electric cars depends on the Volt's first year success. Remember, GM as a whole still seems to be doing quite well. Still, for those of us who care about the American auto industry and a cleaner environment, the Volt's early accolades have been encouraging. This report obviously isn't.

Consumer Reports notes that its results are still preliminary; it says it's still putting the vehicle through a full testing regimen. Here's hoping more tests, and more experience, prove this initial review to be an outlier.

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