DETROIT -- General Motors' top U.S. executive delivered a staunch defense of electric vehicles and the Chevrolet Volt, noting that the plug-in hybrid's sales tripled in 2012.
"The electric vehicle is not dead," GM North America President Mark Reuss said Wednesday during his keynote address at the Automotive News World Congress. "I believe, and we at GM believe, that the public will accept and embrace electric vehicles. Some people already have."
EVs and plug-ins still represent only a tiny slice of the U.S. market, despite predictions a few years ago that sales would soar amid high gasoline prices. Sales have grown rapidly, albeit from a small base: They nearly tripled last year, to 52,172 units, according to the Automotive News Data Center.
Reuss acknowledged the hurdles to broader adoption of EVs and plug-ins, including high prices. He cited signs that local-government support for green cars might be waning, including the state of Washington's recent decision to charge EV owners a $100 annual fee.
"We're talking about a transformation here. And transformation takes time," he said. "We will see the day when we have an affordable electric car that offers 300 miles of range with all the comfort and utility of a conventional vehicle."
Reuss also reiterated GM's commitment to the Volt, which he said took an "unprecedented political beat-down" last year during the election season. The Volt became the symbol of the Obama administration's support for green car initiatives. It's also received unfavorable press for missing GM-set sales targets since its late 2010 launch.
Still, Volt sales last year tripled, to 23,461 units. Cheaper leases and stair-step incentive programs for dealers, which award them bonus cash as they hit predetermined sales targets, helped drive sales higher, dealers have said.
Satisfied Volt owners
For the second straight year, the Volt finished atop Consumer Reports magazine's annual owner satisfaction survey.
"It's going to sell even more," Reuss said, "and the next generation will be even better."
For the next generation Volt, Reuss said GM can take out "thousands of dollars" in costs through better design of the battery pack and electric motors.
GM is seeking to further amortize the more than $1 billion it spent on the Volt's development by extending the technology to other vehicles, including the Cadillac ELR sports coupe it unveiled at the auto show here Tuesday.
Reuss also lauded the progress that GM and its Detroit rivals have made since their near-death experiences in 2008-09, quipping that "a lot of people have written obituaries far too early."
He said GM, Chrysler Group and Ford Motor Co. employ two-thirds of American autoworkers. GM has spent $10.2 billion on its North American facilities since it emerged from bankruptcy -- with another $1.5 billion slated for this year -- and created or retained 26,500 jobs, he said.
And he said GM's business is the healthiest it has been in years: Average transaction prices that buyers paid for GM vehicles rose 4.1 percent annually since 2008, vs. 2.9 percent for the industry overall.
"People are buying our vehicles because they're great vehicles," Reuss said, "not because there's a gift basket full of cash on the hood."