Martinez: Revved up, but unconvinced

September 19, 2012 

I have a crush on the Chevy Volt.

With gas pushing $4 a gallon, I’ve cast a longing eye at the Volt. It’s a pretty sharp looking car, and this comes from a guy who has a shot of a 1970 Dodge Charger R/T for a screen saver. The Volt’s 38-mile gas-free range comes up short for my daily commute of 80+ miles, but when a gear head like me falls in love with great-looking lines, he can justify just about anything.

But not everything.

The Volt is too darn expensive. It starts at nearly $40,000 before you apply the $7,500 federal income tax credit. But my tax money is helping subsidize that credit so I consider it more of a paperwork savings than a real one. There’s also the cost of installing a charger. And then there’s the hassle of finding a charging station away from the house.

I keep my vehicles a long time, so eventually I would have to buy a new battery. Where do I go for that and how do I get rid of the old battery?

You get the point. As cool-looking as I think the Volt is, looks can drive a person only so far – 38 miles in the Volt’s case. With that limited range, I’d be using the Volt’s gasoline engine more than its electric motor.

The Volt’s production line began a four-week shut down Monday, but not necessarily because of slow sales. The automotive press reports that Chevrolet wants to use the Volt work force to help gear up for the retooled 2014 Chevy Impala. Both cars are made at the same plant.

Still, that move is telling and doesn’t bode well for the Volt. I suspect the popularity of the Impala and the Chevy Malibu is the primary reason Volt sales projections have been short circuited.

The Impala starts at $26,000 and is EPA-rated at 18/30 mpg. The Malibu starts at about $22,000 and is EPA-rated at 22/33 mpg. I drove a Malibu for a week in California, and the performance was pretty good. It’s also a decent-looking vehicle that could easily be spiced up with the right accessories. With a price in the $20s, as much as I lust after the Volt, I’d buy the Impala or Malibu.

I’m not alone. America just has not fallen in love with the Volt. Or with any other electric vehicle. The numbers don’t lie.

According to Edmonds, 1,284,743 vehicles were sold in August, up 20 percent from August 2011. That’s good economic news, but not for EVs. Only 5,000 or so of those sold were electric-powered.

Chevy sold 2,831 Volts, which is 1,000 more than it sold in August 2011. But some of the car intelligence I’ve read attributes the jump to incentives from the manufacturer to the dealer.

Regardless, Chevrolet will probably sell only half of its reported sales goal of 45,000 units in 2012, which was a healthy reduction from the 60,000 units it hoped to sell in 2011.

Toyota had a decent August, selling 1,047 Prius units that can be plugged into the wall.

Now the bad news.

The Nissan Leaf, the object of a much-heralded ad in which a polar bear swims down from the North Pole to hug a Leaf owner, sold only 685 units. That’s it. On the bright side, that’s much better that the mere 395 Leafs bought in July. Ford sold just 34 Focus Electrics in August, up from 38 sold in July, while 37 Mitsubishi i-Miev’s were purchased last month.

Honda, meanwhile, sold only nine all-electric FITS, up from the seven sold in July. The higher-end, super-cool all-electric models from Tesla and Fisker sold a combined 300 units in August, but they are hardly everyday cars.

The market continues to tell us that that no amount of styling can cover up the reality that electric cars, even after 100 years, remain more show than go.

Contributing columnist Rick Martinez ( rickjmartinez2@gmail.com) is news director at WPTF, NC News Network and SGRToday.com.

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