2011 Chevrolet VoltEnlarge Photo
While the 2011 Chevy Volt will find its way to between 10,000 and 15,000 U.S. buyers, that's far from enough volume to make any car a production success--or to make it profitable.
Most mainstream car models must sell 100,000 or more units a year to produce black ink.
So to achieve a return on its investment in the innovative range-extended electric car, the General either has to raise Volt production substantially, develop other models to use the Voltec powertrain, or both.
Huge attention, low volume
The 2011 Volt has brought GM great attention and many awards, but this year its production and sales amount to only 5 to 7 percent of what mainstream models like the Cruze and Malibu achieve.
2011 Chevrolet Volt Production LineEnlarge Photo
More than a decade ago, General Motors got very good initial press and then scathing criticism for the final handling of their earlier experimental electric car, the two-seat all-electric EV1.
While the lessees loved the EV1, the General ultimately chose not to extend the leases on the cars--and then it recalled and crushed all the EV1s, bringing enormous bad press.
This left many diehard electric vehicle fans highly distrustful of GM's intentions for the current Chevrolet Volt, though the site of Volts steadily rolling off the Detroit-Hamtramck assembly line and into showrooms may have quieted at least some of its critics.
But for GM to make money from its huge investment in new technology, both production and sales volume may need to rise to 150,000 units per year. And doing that soon isn't as simple as it sounds.
General Motors has cut some cost on Volt development by using portions of the understructure and hidden parts from other compact models in their lineup, including the 2011 Chevy Cruze and several European Opel models.
2011 Chevrolet Volt MPV5 concept, Unveiled at 2010 Beijing Motor ShowEnlarge Photo
But the best way to distribute the significant power train development costs associated with the Voltec engineering is to share that powertrain across several models.
Some time ago, GM showed the the Chevrolet Volt MPV5 crossover concept at the Beijing Auto Show, though small crossovers traditionally haven't been popular in the U.S. market.
Earlier, production plans for a 2009 concept also based on the Volt drivetrain, the Cadillac Converj, were cancelled.
Thus far, the General has not revealed much in the way of new models that use the sophisticated engineering of its Voltec technology.
Cadillac Converj ConceptEnlarge Photo
One beacon of hope is that GM has registered the model name "Chevy Amp"--which certainly sounds like it could be a Volt relative.
That car did not appear at January's Detroit Auto Show, as rumored, but it may still be waiting in the wings.
Without higher production volumes and cost-sharing across several other models, owners and electric-car advocates worry that the promise of the 2011 Volt could end up as just another GM dead end.
GM, are you listening?