General Motors Co., trailing Nissan Motor Co. in electric-car sales, plans to boost output of its Chevrolet Volt to 5,000 a month as the automaker seeks to seize the lead and test consumers’ hunger for plug-in vehicles.
Nissan is winning this year, selling 3,875 of the Leaf in the U.S. to GM’s 2,745 Volt sales. While Nissan accelerated production faster than GM, the Detroit automaker will outstrip its Japanese rival and make 5,000 of the Volt a month as soon as January, Tony Posawatz, the director of the vehicle line, said in an interview.
At today’s production levels, both vehicles are in short supply and the automakers have thousands of consumers on waiting lists. It’s still unknown whether customers ultimately prefer a pure electric car like the Leaf or a plug-in hybrid like the Volt that can travel longer distances, and how many people are willing to pay for the gas-saving technology.
“This is very much about supply constraints as opposed to a sales race,” Rebecca Lindland, an analyst with IHS Automotive, a research firm based in Lexington, Massachusetts. “Next year will really show true demand for these kinds of cars and which one wins.”
GM will quickly expand output as its pushes toward a goal of selling 10,000 Volts in the U.S. this year, Posawatz said. GM plans to assemble 60,000 next year at its Detroit-Hamtramck plant, with 45,000 of them earmarked for U.S. buyers.
“It’s fair to say GM underestimated demand for the Volt,” he said. “By January, the capacity we need will be online.”
GM restarted Detroit-Hamtramck this month after shutting it down in June. The factory was retooled to also produce the Chevrolet Malibu sedan early next year. U.S. sales of the sedan, also made in Fairfax, Kansas, rose 13 percent in the first half to 122,783.
Nissan builds the Leaf in Oppama, Japan, and has annual capacity to make 50,000 of the car next year. The company has sold 9,687 of them globally through the first week of July, about 4,000 of them in the U.S., said Brian Brockman, a spokesman. The Yokohama-based company expects monthly U.S. Leaf deliveries to be at about the same rate as in June, when dealers sold 1,708, he said.
Sales volumes of successful cars are typically measured in the hundreds of thousands, not the hundreds. Toyota Motor Corp.’s U.S. dealers delivered 66,520 Prius hybrids in the first half, even as production was limited by the tsunami in March. Toyota sold 140,928 Prius and 327,804 Camry cars in the U.S. last year, while Ford Motor Co. sold 528,349 F-Series pickups.
The challenge for GM and Nissan will be selling bigger volumes of Volts and Leafs after electric-car and hybrid enthusiasts have bought theirs, said Ivan Drury, analyst with Edmunds.com, a website in Santa Monica, California that tracks vehicle pricing and sales data.
“It’s too soon to tell any definite direction in the race between the two cars,” Drury said. “Even next year it will be very limited. It’s going to take five to six more years before we see these cars selling over 100,000 a year.”
The Volt starts at $39,995 after GM dropped the price by $1,005 in June. The Leaf starts at $35,200 after Nissan announced a price increase July 19. Both vehicles are eligible for a federal tax rebate of $7,500.
GM will market the value of the Volt when production reaches higher levels, Posawatz said. The Volt’s cost of ownership matches the average car when including the $7,500 U.S. tax incentive and gasoline fuel savings, he said.
“Early adopters are different from fast followers and they are different from mainstream buyers,” Posawatz said. “We’ll have to make certain people understand the value proposition. We’ll have to get the word out to breach the chasm.”
GM and Nissan began production in December. GM had a slower production start than the Leaf, as the automaker performed more-thorough quality checks on put the cars and parts than it usually does, Posawatz said. The Volt has been attracting new buyers to Chevy and GM needed to ensure top quality in the model and that dealers were read to service the car, he said.
GM also tested some of the charging stations with the Volt to “get the kinks out” before expanding production, Posawatz said.
Plug-in hybrids like the Volt run solely on electric drive until the battery runs down, then the gasoline engine starts and either drives the wheels or charges the battery. Traditional hybrids need power from the gasoline engine most of the time, while pure electric cars like the Leaf run solely using electric motors.
GM and Nissan should be able to sell every Volt and Leaf they make through at least 2013, said Chris Hopson, an IHS analyst. IHS predicts that Nissan will sell 35,000 Leafs in the U.S. next year and 54,000 the next year. Chevy will sell 35,000 to 50,000 of the Volt in 2012, Hopson said, and 67,000 in 2013.
GM expects a boost next year when the Volt is designated as an Enhance Advance Technology Partial Zero-Emission Vehicle in California. That will qualify the car for a $1,500 rebate from the state and drivers will be able to zip by heavy traffic using carpool lanes on the state’s freeways, Posawatz said.
The 2011 Volt didn’t get the California certification, because the initial model didn’t meet the state’s warranty and emissions requirements for plug-in cars.
Both cars will soon face more competition. Next year, Ford will start selling the C-Max Energi, a plug-in hybrid version of its C-Max small car and Mitsubishi Motors Corp. will be selling its i electric car. Honda Motor Co. plans an electric Fit subcompact and a midsize plug-in hybrid in 2012.
Toyota may pose the biggest challenge when it starts selling a plug-in hybrid version of its Prius, Edmunds.com’s Drury said. That car will be able to drive at least 13 miles on electric power before the gasoline engine kicks in and should get 50 mpg. Toyota plans to sell at least 16,000 next year, the company said July 20.
Drury said Toyota will be able to capitalize on the popularity of the Prius and its established brand name to lure buyers and get current Prius owners to buy the plug-in version of the car.
“The Prius will take away some Volt and Leaf buyers,” he said. “It’s too easy of a decision for car buyers to make.”
GM Chief Executive Officer Dan Akerson said in January that he wants a car using the Chevy’s Voltec electric-drive technology for each of GM’s four U.S. brands. GM has backed off on the push for more Voltec cars, shelving plans for Cadillac and Buick versions of the Opel Ampera, said two people familiar with the matter, who were not authorized to speak publicly. The Ampera is similar to the Volt only with Opel brand styling.
Robert Peterson, a GM spokesman, declined to comment on unannounced product plans.
After GM takes the production lead early next year, Nissan is planning to snatch it back by the end of 2012. Nissan will be able to build the Leaf on the same assembly line as the Altima and Maxima sedans at its plant in Smyrna, Tennessee, with capacity to build 150,000 of the Leaf for the U.S. and for export. In 2013, Nissan will add capacity for 50,000 more Leafs at a plant in Sunderland, U.K.
Moritz Chevrolet in Fort Worth, Texas, has about 60 buyers on a waiting list, said Jim Hardick, a co-owner. He sells every Volt he gets right off the delivery truck, he said.
“We have more demand than we have cars,” Hardick said. “I just wish they were more plentiful.”