"Lightning rod" no longer suffices to suffice to describe the platform for controversy that the Chevrolet Volt has become in its two-year history on the market. Maybe someday Volt will simply serve as its own metaphor for a brilliant but troubled car — like "DeLorean."
That's not to say that it's not successful — indeed, the Volt has expanded its lead, as Bloomberg reports, "as the top-selling U.S. rechargeable car this year as Toyota expanded plug-in Prius deliveries and Nissan said it's working to boost electric Leaf sales." Chevy sold 2,851 Volts in September; Nissan sold 984 Leafs; it wasn't clear how many of Toyota's mearly 19,000 Prius sales were plug-ins, but certainly it was a small percentage.
Even so, Chevrolet CMO Chris Perry is having to defend the recent ramping up of sales incentives that the brand is using to entice consumers and dealers into moving more units of the plug-in hybrid nameplate.
In September, GM sold a record 2,851 Volts, a record for any month for the car since its launch in December 2010, but only amid offers of discounted leases with monthly payments as low as $249 as well as a dealer "stair-step program" that paid them as much as $2,500 for each Volt they sold.
Looking at August figures, TrueCar.com estimated that GM spent close to $10,000 in incentive money per Volt sold in August. The Volt's sticker price is more than $40,000. "The incentives, we think, are appropriate," Perry told Automotive News. "We know that when we get poeple in the car, people love the vehicle. They turn into advocates for Chevrolet."
Indeed, most Volt owners seem to love a vehicle that provides them with the mileage and green chops of all-electric propulsion while also, with its conventional engine, shielding them from the "range anxiety" that plagues all-electric vehicle owners. Yet Volt also is polarizing because of the many non-Volt owners who observe the $7,500 federal tax break available on purchases of the car, and the huge losses taken by taxpayer-subsidized GM on each sale, and assert that the American people shouldn't have to be paying so heavily for a few thousand consumers to love their Volts.
Reuters has calculated that GM could be losing as much as $49,000 per Volt. But that math was quickly batted down by Bob Lutz, the former GM vice chairman and "father" of Volt who contributes to Forbes.com and excoriated the news agency for ignorance of how car costing works — and for vastly overstating, as a result, the financial toll of Volt on GM at this point.
Unless and until Volt and plug-in technology join the automotive mainstream, and stand up to the same market forces experienced by other nameplates, it'll keep gathering lightning bolts. And not the helpful kind that Michael J. Fox's DeLorean created in Back to the Future.