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Why Chevy Volt sales matter less than you think

commentary GM won't hit its first-year Volt sales target, a sign that its trophy eco-car appeals mainly to early tech adopters. But a greener image could alert consumers to GM's other fuel-efficient vehicles.

So far, not a mainstream car.
Martin LaMonica/CNET
commentary If anyone thought the Chevy Volt would "save" General Motors, take a look at the first-year sales figures.

The auto giant yesterday reported that it sold 1,139 Chevy Volts in November, bringing its total to date to 6,142. That means, barring a massive purchase by a fleet owner, GM will miss its first-year goal of selling 10,000 electrically driven Volts, a target the company now expects to hit early next year. (Nissan has sold 8,720 all-electric Leafs.)

Detractors will no doubt say first-year Volt sales prove that electric vehicles are not ready for prime time and not worth the subsidies buyers receive. To me, it's a sign that EVs are hyped and that GM created an impressive, though arguably overengineered, car to burnish its green car credentials.

Purely from a financial perspective, Volt sales are a tiny fraction of the the 180,000 vehicles GM sold last month. The automaker's economic health is hitched far more firmly to less exotic vehicles that everyday people buy.

What's more significant is that sales of small and compact cars, including the Chevy Cruze and Sonic, were up 54 percent compared to a year ago. So instead of only pushing giant SUVs and trucks, it appears GM is learning to make and sell fuel-efficient vehicles. That could come in handy as it tries to meet EPA fuel economy standards.

It's not hard to understand why people are gravitating to, say, the Cruze over the Volt. The starting price for the Cruze is under $17,000, while the Volt goes is just under $40,000. The Eco version of the Cruze gets 28 MPG in the city and 42 on the highway. Mileage varies greatly depending on driving style, of course, but the Volt is rated at 93 miles per gallon equivalent for city and 37 for highway.

The Volt really offers something an internal combustion car can't do, which is drive entirely on electric power. (Late-night talk show maven and auto enthusiast Jay Leno is said to have never refilled his gas tank). And unlike all-electric cars, there are no real worries about range because its gas engine acts as a generator to charge the batteries. Consumer Reports this week reportedthat the Volt has the highest customer satisfaction rating of any new car. (That, however, was done before the NHTSA board opened an investigation in Volt battery safety.)

But when it comes to making "green cars" accessible to the masses, the Volt's leading-edge design is competing with many other technologies, including traditional hybrids, "mild hybrid" or start-stop technology, and fuel efficiencies in gas and diesel engines. As a result, sales of Volts have gone toward the early technology adopters and are likely to stay that way next year.

GM certainly has learned a lot about electrification from the Volt program, which all automakers know is crucial technology for the future. And GM has gotten lots of mileage on the PR front.

But unless there's a huge spike in oil prices, don't expect the Volt sales volumes to keep pace with the other vehicles in the GM stable. Maybe the biggest win for GM from the Volt will be getting people into its showrooms to see its less famous, stealth eco-cars. Have you heard the new Buick gets better mileage than the Honda Fit?