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GM Seeks Volt Boost in California Carpool Lanes, Super Bowl

GM Faces Task of Rebuilding Volt Image After Probe Ends
A General Motors Co. Chevrolet Volt is charged at a public electric vehicle charging station out front of the GM world headquarters in the Renaissance Center in Detroit, Michigan, U.S. Photographer: Jeff Kowalsky/Bloomberg

General Motors Co. wants its plug-in Chevrolet Volt, stung by safety concerns, to get a sales boost from a version due next month that lets solo California drivers use carpool lanes and a Super Bowl ad touting its technology.

A modified version for California, the biggest market for alternative power autos, should be selling there “by early March,” according to Alan Batey, vice president of Chevrolet sales and service.

“Our biggest opportunity is seats in seats,” Batey said in a Feb. 3 interview in Las Vegas at a J.D. Power & Associates conference. “When people drive the car, they’re wowed by it.”

Sales of the Volt, which can go more than 30 miles on its lithium-ion battery pack before a gasoline engine powers it, totaled 603 last month, fewer than half the 1,529 Detroit-based GM sold in December. The drop came after U.S. regulators late last year said they were reviewing the car after a fire caused by a Volt battery pack damaged in a government crash test.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said in December it was satisfied with modifications GM made to strengthen the vehicle’s frame that protects the Volt’s battery in case of a collision. Scrutiny of the car caused “collateral damage,” GM Chief Executive Officer Dan Akerson told reporters Jan. 25 in Washington.

To help U.S. customers understand plug-ins, GM yesterday aired a commercial before the Super Bowl, the year’s most watched U.S. television event, in which a Volt owner explains how the car works to visiting aliens.

Explaining the Volt

“Our job is to make sure we explain the technology,” Batey said. “A lot of American consumers really don’t know how we’re able to achieve the extended range.”

GM last year set a target of selling 45,000 Volts in the U.S. this year. For now, “we’re not making any predictions,” Batey said. “We’re going to balance supply and demand.”

While the Volt has been sold since December 2010, its warranty and emissions rating initially didn’t meet California’s zero-emission vehicle rules. That prevented the car from winning the state’s coveted “high-occupancy vehicle” sticker, allowing individual drivers of low-pollution cars into carpool lanes.

Production of Volts modified for California begins this month, Batey said. It arrives as Toyota Motor Corp. also begins selling a plug-in version of its Prius hybrid in the state next month, which goes about 15 miles per charge.

“To a specific subgroup of consumers in Los Angeles and San Francisco, where congestion is particularly bad, that carpool lane sticker has great value,” said John O’Dell, senior editor for advanced vehicles at in Santa Monica, California. “It’s certainly going to help them in California.”

The Toyota model has a base price of about $32,000, before a $2,500 federal tax credit. The Volt starts at $39,195 and qualifies for a $7,500 credit, owing to a larger battery.

GM rose 2 percent to $26.70 at the close in New York.

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