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DETROIT - General Motors Co. rolled out the Chevrolet Volt two years ago with lofty sales goals and the promise of a new technology that someday would help end America's dependence on oil.
So it seemed like a good thing in August when sales of the $40,000 car set a monthly record of 2,800. But a closer look shows that things aren't what they seem for the cutting-edge car.
Sales rose mostly because of discounts of almost $10,000, or 25 percent of the Volt's sticker price, according to figures from TrueCar.com, an auto pricing website. Other pricing services gave similar numbers, and dealers confirmed that steeply discounted Volts are selling better than a few months ago.
GM's discounts on the Volt are more than four times the industry's per-vehicle average, according to TrueCar estimates. Edmunds.com and J.D. Power and Associates say they're about three times the average. Discounts include low-interest financing, cash discounts to buyers, sales bonuses to dealers and subsidized leases.
Americans have been slow to embrace electric cars. But the Volt's August sales show they're willing to buy if prices are low enough. Even so, electrics have a long way to go before they enter the mainstream and make money for car companies. Electrics and gas-electric hybrids account for just 3.5 percent of U.S. auto sales this year. GM is losing thousands of dollars on every Volt, raising the question of how long it can keep eating the steep losses.
GM executives have conceded from the start that they were losing money on the Volt, and that was before the big discounts.
Now the losses could be even higher. It costs $60,000 to $75,000 to build a Volt, including development, manufacturing and raw materials, estimates Sandy Munro, president of Munro & Associates, a Troy, Mich., a company that analyzes vehicle production expenses for automakers. Much of the cost comes from an expensive combination of two power systems - electric and gasoline. With a sticker price of $40,000, minus the $10,000 the company pays in incentives, GM gets roughly $30,000 for every Volt. So it could be losing at least $30,000 per car.
"It certainly wasn't a rousing success," Carter Driscoll, senior analyst for CapStone Investments who follows electric cars, says of the Volt.
GM confirmed there are incentives on the Volt and that the company loses money on the car. But the automaker declined to give figures for the discounts or the losses. The figures exclude a federal tax credit that goes to buyers.
The automaker says Munro's estimate is high because it doesn't spread the Volt's costs far enough into the future, when more Volts will be sold. Automakers typically spend $1 billion or more to develop a car and sometimes don't recoup the investment and start making money until late in its life. Also, Volt technology will be used in future cars and trucks, eventually leading to profits, the company says.
"We're trying to create a market for a brand-new technology," said GM spokesman Jim Cain.
GM says that the Volt has helped the company, even if it never makes a dime. The car has pulled in customers from rival brands and helped Chevy wrestle at least part of the environmental halo from Toyota's Prius, executives say. It also will help GM meet tough government fuel economy standards.
GM's Cain says the company wants all cars and trucks to be profitable, but some take longer than others.
"Its prime purpose was to introduce a new generation of technology," says Bob Lutz, a retired GM vice chairman. "And at the same time ... demonstrate to the world that GM is way more technologically capable than the people give it credit for."