General Motors will halt the factory line in Detroit where it builds Chevrolet Volts for five weeks, putting 1,300 workers on a temporary layoff after demand for the plug-in hybrid has fallen far short of Volt output so far. It's the strongest sign to date that the Volt may be more technology than Americans want in their cars.
As Ward's Automotive explains, GM had little choice. It has 6,319 Volts in stock, yet only sold 1,023 in February, despite a Super Bowl ad push. At that rate, GM would need five months to fully deplete its inventories; it usually aims to keep two months' worth of its models on dealers' lots. GM has long abandoned its previous forecast for 60,000 Volt sales worldwide this year, but now it's fair to wonder whether GM will ever meet that goal.
Like Pigpen from "Peanuts," a dust cloud of politics and controversy surrounds the Volt no matter how hard GM toils. Instead of becoming a sign of American technical accomplishment, the Volt has been battered by Republicans as evidence of the Obama administration's failures -- arguments that only return to prominence every time President Barack Obama uses the Volt for his own political points, as he did last week when telling a gathering of UAW workers that he'd buy one once he's out of office.
But the Volt's real challenge remains that its electric drive system doesn't overcome the sticker shock for many buyers from a $33,500 compact sedan -- even one that's delivering more than 100 mpg in everyday driving for most owners. GM has steadfastly refused to do what it does with every other slow-selling vehicle and offer rebates or other incentives to motivate fence-sitters, and despite gas at $4 a gallon, the cost of owning a Volt often doesn't pencil out.
While Volt haters will use GM's move as vindication, it's not as if the competition can claim any better results. Nissan has sold even fewer all-electric Nissan Leafs this year -- just 1,154 -- and while it hasn't been as specific about boosting output, it's building a U.S. production line which would seem unusual for any other model selling at such low volumes. Having spent roughly $1 billion on developing the Volt and potential spinoffs, GM isn't likely to just walk away -- but if shoppers continue to shun the Volt and Leaf through this next wave of rising gas prices, the question of whether Americans are ready to embrace electric vehicles will have a clear answer.