There's been very little news lately about the Chevrolet Volt range-extended electric car, and its sales in 2013 sales were stagnant.
In fact, the most recent item of note was a $5,000 price reduction on the 2014 Volt last August, to bring it closer to the center of the volume-car market.
But behind the scenes, Chevrolet is preparing the next iteration of its pioneering plug-in car.
Based on published articles and a host of private conversations with industry analysts, electric-car advocates, and--yes--a few General Motors employees, here's what we know so far about the next Volt.
GM will almost certainly unveil a redesigned Chevrolet Volt at next January's Detroit Auto Show.
Whether it will carry a 2015 or 2016 model isn't yet clear, but we're betting on the latter, which would give the first Volt a five-year life.
We'll learn more this summer, depending on whether Chevrolet issues details for a 2015 Volt very similar to the current one.
The main reason for redesigning the Volt is to get the cost down. Way down.
Departed GM CEO Dan Akerson said a number of times that the goal for the next model was to take $10,000 in cost out of the Volt.
We don't have confirmed numbers on what today's Volt costs to build, but Akerson himself admitted last May that GM loses money on each one.
Will the new car be profitable? If GM follows the same model as Toyota did with its Prius hybrid, a second-generation Volt might turn profitable sometime during its model cycle.
More important to consumers, we suspect that Chevy will keep the price at $35,000 and may cut it further.
Our ideal target would be $29,995--and, remember, the new Volt will still qualify for a $7,500 Federal income-tax credit plus various state and local incentives.
But GM may well keep the 2016 Chevy Volt at around $35,000, as a premium offering. We'll have to wait for that one.
It's safe to say that a longer electric range may be the top request for the new car from owners of the current Volt.
We don't think that'll happen; we think GM will stick with its original 40-mile range.
(The 2011 Volt was rated at 35 miles of range, which rose to 38 miles for 2013 and later models.)
As GM has said for many years now, almost four-fifths of U.S. vehicles travel 40 miles a day or less--which means that greater electric range applies to a smaller and smaller proportion of vehicles and uses.
Even now, Volts cover three-quarters to two-thirds of all their miles on grid electricity used to charge their battery packs, with the gasoline range extender used for just one-third to one-quarter of total miles driven.
Moreover, the goal of radically cutting the Volt's build cost argues against adding any range. GM needs to make its battery pack smaller and much less expensive to get there, so we'd lay money on its keeping the current 40-mile electric range.
The current Volt is a compact five-door hatchback, and we expect the new 2016 Volt to retain its dedicated shape.
Just as for two generations of Toyota Prius, the high vertical tail of the Volt is the best way to cut the energy used to overcome aerodynamic drag at 30 mph and higher.
But today's Volt has just four seats. There's no central rear seating position because the T-shaped battery pack that runs down the car's center tunnel gets in the way.
That missing fifth seat has turned out to be a deal-breaker for some buyers who'd otherwise love to have a Volt, and GM knows this.
Some analysts have suggested that GM might offer two Volts: a four-seat hatchback with a range of more than 40 miles, and a five-seat version that sticks to the 40-mile rating.
We think that's unlikely; the Volt hasn't yet proven that it can sell in high enough numbers to justify two different battery pack designs.
Whether the new Volt battery pack can be redesigned, rearranged, and repackaged to permit a fifth seat isn't known now--but we're betting it's one of the top program goals.
Will there be a five-seat "tall Volt," closer in format to today's Ford C-Max, like the Volt MPV5 Concept shown in China in April 2010?
Possibly...but not right away. We think GM has to sell many more Volts a year before it considers separate body styles.
Like its lines or not, the Volt today has become a recognized shape.
According to Edmunds, the designers will evolve that shape rather than replace it--now on top of GM's new Delta 2 compact-car architecture.
We'd like to see a taller window line and more side glass, eliminating the hokey black-plastic panels that visually lower what are actually quite short side windows.
Or as one GM body designer told us, the Volt looks the way it does because it's essentially a Chevy Cruze firewall and crash structure with a roof chopped 4 inches
Regardless of what we want, however, expect the next Volt to have a recognizable shape evolved from today's car.
We're betting it'll also have LED running lights and probably even headlights.
Not only have they appeared on many large trucks and sport utility vehicles from GM, they're now found on the Cadillac ELR range-extended electric luxury coupe that shares Volt technolgy.
GM will likely stick with its existing lithium-ion cells from its current battery partner, LG Chem--though refinements to chemistry and production technology could well increase the energy capacity of each cell.
But Voltec engineers may also be able to use more of the battery's pack total energy capacity, known as "opening up" the pack's state-of-charge range.
Today's Volt has a battery pack of 16.5 kilowatt-hours, of which it uses only 10.8 kWh--or 65 percent.
That's a sensibly conservative amount, and gives GM a healthy margin to ensure battery life in older Volts. But it's also lower than the usage in many other plug-in electric cars, especially battery electrics.
If GM can use higher-capacity cells, but build fewer cells and modules into the new Volt's battery pack, while using a greater percentage of the pack's overall energy--70 or 75 percent, perhaps--it could significantly reduce the pack size and weight--and perhaps provide space for that fifth seat.
And as of now, Voltec engineers have far more data--five years or more--on how Volt batteries age than they did on launch, meaning they could be far more confident that using more of the total capacity wouldn't risk unacceptable capacity loss down the road.
One thing that will change in the next Volt is its range extender, which is expected to be a variation of the 1.0-liter turbocharged three-cylinder engine launched last fall in the Opel Monza concept at the Frankfurt Motor Show.
The current Volt engine is a 1.4-liter four that produces 85 hp, adapted from a 138-hp 1.4-liter turbo fitted to the Chevrolet Sonic subcompact and Cruze compact sedan.
If Chevy engineers remove the turbo from the 115-horsepower three-cylinder engine, it would be considerably lighter and more compact than today's range extender--reducing weight, packaging challenges, and perhaps even frontal area.
With a lighter battery and a lighter engine, overall vehicle weight could fall substantially, which might boost the 2016 Volt's gas mileage in range-extending mode from today's 37 miles per gallon to 40 mpg or higher.
We expect to learn more about this engine shortly, and will add more details to this story once we do.
Many of today's Volt owners are expecting all specifications to improve. Some suggest that "triple fives" are the appropriate goal for GM to target: 50-mile electric range, 50 miles per gallon in range-extending mode, and five seats.
We suspect that GM is far more interested in producing a Volt that's lighter, more capacious, and considerably cheaper to build.
If the company can turn a profit by selling Volts--which it isn't today--then it becomes possible to pay for a lot more innovation in an all-new Volt in, say, 2020.
Meanwhile, we should know much more about the 2016 Chevrolet Volt in about 10 months.
The wait seems like a very long time, doesn't it?