DETROIT -- General Motors Vice Chairman Steve Girsky said it will take four or five more months before it's clear whether sales of GM's revolutionary Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid will take off.
"I think it'll be May or June before we know whether this thing really has legs," Girsky said following a speech Tuesday evening at the Automotive News World Congress.
GM sold 7,671 Volts in the United States in 2011, short of its 10,000-unit target. GM executives at the auto show here this week have downplayed expectations for 2012 Volt sales.
Asked whether GM is sticking by its previously declared production target of 60,000 Volts this year -- 45,000 of which would be allocated to the United States -- both CEO Dan Akerson and Mark Reuss, president of North America, said the automaker will make enough to satisfy demand.
Restrained Volt sales
Girsky said restrained availability continues to keep a lid on Volt sales. GM launched the car in seven key markets in late 2010, but didn't roll it out nationally until late last year.
"There's still dealer orders that are getting filled, there's customers that are still getting out there," Girsky said. "I don't think the dealers are really pushing this car yet because most of them only have one or two."
Nonetheless, the Volt is serving as a halo vehicle by drawing in a new breed of customers, Girsky said. He said the median income of Volt buyers is $175,000 and the car "is bringing more BMW customers to GM than Cadillac is."
He added that his wife, mother and aunt each own a Volt.
Girsky has been a GM vice chairman since 2010, initially in charge of corporate strategy and alliances. Last year, Akerson expanded Girsky's role by giving him oversight of product planning, purchasing and GM's OnStar telematics unit.
In November, GM CEO Dan Akerson made Girsky chairman of Opel's supervisory board, handing him the assignment of reviving a unit that has lost roughly $13 billion since 1999.
In his speech, Girsky, a former Wall Street analyst with a New York accent and rapid-fire speaking style, touched on a range of issues:
- On Europe: GM in November reversed an earlier prediction that its operations there would break even in 2011 for the first time in many years because of the sagging economy. "We're committed to returning our European business to sustained profitability," Girsky said. "We need to be prepared for a challenging demand environment for the foreseeable future." He told reporters after his speech that Opel, GM's European unit, "is not for sale. We're developing plans to make Opel work."
- On the four-year labor contract GM inked with the UAW last fall: "We wanted to minimize the impact on our balance sheet, and the union wanted to grow its members," which is how GM arrived at what he called "a landmark deal" that's heavily weighted toward profit-sharing and performance bonuses. "We gave a little bit more when things do well to protect ourselves on the downside."
- On GM's financial performance: "We know our margins are well below our peers," he said. "We still have work to do."
- On the government bailout of GM: "Trust me, if the government didn't step in, it would have been a disaster here, not just in Michigan, but in the rest of the country."
- On changing GM's culture: "I think it's evolving," Girsky said. "It's about putting up wins, whether it's product wins, … profitability wins, reducing costs in a certain area, taking down sacred cows," he said. "I think it feeds off itself."
- On GM's relations with suppliers: Girsky, whose direct reports include GM purchasing chief Bob Socia, acknowledged that GM historically pressed suppliers for the lowest possible price, without much collaboration on technology. "Socia spends a lot of time," he said, "on 'What do we have to do to be a part of supplier relations, supplier innovations?' It's really a different model."