Chance for coveted fast-lane sticker jolts Volt's Calif. sales
DETROIT -- General Motors is on pace for one of its strongest sales months yet for the Chevrolet Volt, thanks to a low-emissions model capable of putting California drivers in the coveted car-pool lane.
Several California Chevy dealers say their sales of the plug-in hybrid have doubled or tripled over the past few months since GM began rolling out the revised model that qualifies for California's high-occupancy vehicle sticker.
The HOV sticker allows a single driver of a Volt to use a highway lane normally reserved for cars with at least two, or in some cases three, occupants. Because the HOV lane often is less congested, the sticker is coveted as a way to reduce commuting time.
The first low-emission versions began trickling in during March. Dealers say sales accelerated in May and June as stocks increased.
Ron Vartanian, general manager at Bunnin Chevrolet in Culver City, outside Los Angeles, said his store sold 26 Volts during the second half of May after getting a fresh load of the new models. Before that, he said, the store had been averaging six or seven sales a month.
"When the HOV cars became available, we had a backlog of people wanting them," Vartanian said. "I thought we'd have a tough time in June, but we've already sold 12."
A GM spokesman confirmed that the company is "on track to have one of our strongest Volt months since launch."
That's welcome news for GM executives, who have endured a rough nine months of often negative Volt headlines. In January, sluggish sales forced GM CEO Dan Akerson to back off a previous production target of 60,000 Volts for 2012, about three-quarters of which were to be sold in the United States.
A two-month study of possible fire risks in the Volt's battery pack generated negative media coverage. NHTSA closed the probe in January, concluding there is no elevated fire risk.
Sales of the Volt and Nissan Leaf, both launched in late 2010, are closely watched as bellwethers for electric-vehicle sales as several other automakers plan EV rollouts. The Volt also has become a political lightning rod for critics of President Barack Obama's support of electric vehicles.
Previous Volt models didn't meet California's strict emissions requirements and thus failed to qualify for the state's HOV lanes, which disappointed many dealers and would-be customers.
For the low-emissions version, GM engineers added a secondary air-injection pump to the Volt's catalytic converter that pipes air into the exhaust stream to strip out more pollutants.
California has accounted for about 20 percent of GM's Volt sales. That percentage should grow as sales of the low-emissions version accelerate, the GM spokesman said.
GM sold 7,671 Volts in 2011, short of its original goal of 10,000. Through May, Volt sales totaled 7,057, more than triple the amount from a year earlier.
Ken Ross, owner of Team Chevrolet-Cadillac in Vallejo, Calif., near San Francisco, said his store sold 15 Volts in May, up from an average of three or four a month. He said supply "still hasn't caught up" with demand, though he has 30 Volts en route to his store.
Ross and other California dealers said the profile of their Volt customers has changed from the environmentalists and technology fanatics who were among the early adopters. Dealers are seeing more commuters looking to slash their gasoline budgets.
GM renewed a program that rewards dealers with stair-step volume bonuses for Volt sales. Through Sept. 4, dealers can earn up to $2,500 in bonus cash for each Volt sale if they sell triple the volume of their GM-set objective. An earlier program ran from late January through April.
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