Published August 13, 2012
By Jeff Cobb
In China, where the central planners say they want five million EVs on the road as soon as 2020, Chevrolet began importing the Volt in January – but being ineligible for subsidies offered only to domestically made plug-in cars, its sales have been very low.
How low? Too low for Ray Bierzynski, head of GM’s electric vehicle strategy in China to share in definitive terms when asked by Reuters, and for now the Volt is a tech halo extraordinaire while the automotive landscape continues to infill with inexpensive subsidized EVs.
The Volt’s price of around $79,000 is just about double what one starts for in the U.S., and a major percentage of Chinese citizens live in apartments which lack home charging, and public chargers are pretty scarce also.
Even in the U.S., the Volt has had to fight for market share against politicized attacks, overblown controversy about its battery, and a $40,000 starting price – less potential subsidies. To date, it is doing fairly well as green cars go, but still has not regularly sold more than 2,000 units per month.
As a tech halo in China, the General hopes the Volt will create credibility for the world’s largest automaker in the world’s largest auto market all in good time, according Bierzynski.
GM also intends to introduce the pending Volt-based Cadillac ELR and is looking into an all-electric version of the Chevy Sail, and is also keeping its options open for smaller, lower-speed EVs.
“There’s no silver bullet,” Bierzynski said. “All of these may have applicability at any given point in time.”
According to InsideEVs, a Chevrolet electric car that looks promising is the Sail. It is based on a $9,000-$10,000 gas-powered compact that GM now has converted a small fleet of into electric form.
The plug-in Sail was seen first as a concept in 2010 at the Guangzhou International Auto Expo. GM said it was powered by a small 65-kilowatt motor, and had a range of 93 miles (150 km) and top speed of 80 mph (130 kph).
But while some have said the Sail could well be produced in China, GM officially is being just as general about plans here too.
“There’s work going on toward it, but we have not made any decision direction on production, volume, timing, any of that,” said Bierzynski.
What ever GM decides to do, the carrot on a stick that is China’s possibly soon-to-explode EV market must be quite a lure for GM to come up with many more domestically made products.
The Volt may give GM bragging rights, however it’s arguable that a plug-in Chevy costing as much as a some Mercedes-Benz models would offer as much bragging rights in the minds of some conspicuous consumers.
When launching the Volt this year, GM said it expects China to account for half of all luxury purchases by 2020 – including vehicles and all categories of consumer goods – so while the Volt is pricey, it has said there are those who can afford it.
But there's little doubt a Buick or Cadillac would fare better at upper stratospheric price points, and Bierzynski did say the Cadillac ELR – which will cost even more – should be imported after it is first launched in the U.S.
But it is EVs made with joint venture partners that will be the volume leaders, at least this is the plan. Not quite matching President Obama’s high hopes of one million EVs and PHEVs on the road by 2015, China has set a target of just half that many, but hopes to go to 10 times this many on the road by just 2020.
The lowest hanging advanced-tech sales fruit for now, as is true also in the U.S., is with bottom-line conscious fleet buyers who – unlike sometimes not-fully informed mainstream consumers – can crunch the numbers and see a positive value proposition for going EV.
As such, the commercial sector accounts for around 84 percent of new energy vehicle sales now in China.
Perhaps they can sell some $79,000 Volts to these folks.
And perhaps after dipping its toes in, and feeling the water cold toward the Volt, GM might eventually decide to manufacture its for-now-imported extended-range electric vehicle, at which point China will make the waters feel far more accommodating, coaxing already tempted GM to jump right in.
Or perhaps after a significantly upgraded Volt is released in the U.S. possibly as soon as next year, GM might assemble first-generation Volts in China. Bierzynski said GM is already developing a local supply base that could one day be used for local EV manufacturing, and is testing Chinese-made batteries as well, but also reiterated prior GM statements that there are no plans to build Volts in China.
At present the Volt is imported from the U.S., and available through 13 dealers in areas around Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.
Being partially locked out of a market whose central planners intend to magnify the number of electric vehicles on the road by 2020 must be quite a goad to GM which would otherwise surely want to get a larger piece of such a major pie – as long as the necessary concession of domestic manufacture with a joint venture partner is deemed worth the tradeoff.
Or, GM can keep going as is, and see if it can generate significant volume for the Volt against less expensive alternatives now and coming that that are eligible for subsidization as well.