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Larry Burns, General Motors vice president of Research and Development and Strategic Planning, demonstrates how to plug in a Chevy Volt on Capitol Hill in Washington December 4, 2008. (KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS)
Larry Burns, General Motors vice president of Research and Development and Strategic Planning, demonstrates how to plug in a Chevy Volt on Capitol Hill in Washington December 4, 2008. (KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS)

GM’s Volt: The ugly math of low sales, high costs Add to ...

Other estimates range from $76,000 to $88,000, according to four industry consultants contacted by Reuters. The consultants’ companies all have performed work for GM and are familiar with the Volt’s development and production. They requested anonymity because of the sensitive nature of their auto industry ties. [Factbox on estimates – nL2E8K7HPC] Parks declined to comment on specific costs related to the Volt.

The independent cost estimates obtained by Reuters factor in GM’s initial investment in development of the Volt and its key components, as well as new tooling for battery, stamping, assembly and supplier plants – a price tag that totals “a little over” $1-billion, Parks said. Independent estimates put it at $1.2-billion, a figure that does not include sales, marketing and related corporate costs.

Spread out over the 21,500 Volts that GM has sold since the car’s introduction in December 2010, the development and tooling costs average just under $56,000 per car. That figure will, of course, come down as more Volts are sold.

The actual cost to build the Volt is estimated to be an additional $20,000 to $32,000 per vehicle, according to Mr. Munro and the other industry consultants.

The production cost estimates are considerably higher than those for the Chevrolet Cruze, the Volt’s conventional gasoline-engine sister car, which Mr. Munro estimates at $12,000 to $15,000 per vehicle.

Production costs typically include such items as parts, material, labor and the cost to run the factory, according to manufacturing expert Ron Harbour, who heads the North American Automotive Practice at Michigan-based consultant Oliver Wyman.

The Volt costs more to build for several reasons, mostly related to the car’s richer content, complex technology and still-low sales and production volumes.

The basic model has a higher level of equipment and features than the Cruze, which is assembled in Lordstown, Ohio, and has a starting sales price of $17,925. The Volt also has a number of unique parts, including the battery pack, the electric motor and the power electronics.

Some of GM’s suppliers also impose cost penalties on the automaker because the Volt’s production volume remains well below projections.

Still, as the company wrestles with how to drive down costs and increase showroom traffic, Mr. Parks said the Volt is an important car for GM in other respects.

“It wasn’t conceived as a way to make tons of money,” he said. “It was a big dip in the technology pool for GM. We’ve learned a boatload of stuff that we’re deploying on other models,” Mr. Parks said. Those include the Cruze and such future cars as the 2014 Cadillac ELR hybrid.

The same risky strategy – gambling on relatively untested technology – drove massive investments by Toyota Motor Corp in the Prius hybrid and Nissan Motor Co in the Leaf electric car.

Toyota said it now makes a profit on the Prius, which was introduced in the United States in 2000 and is now in its third generation. Sales of the Prius hybrid, which comes in four different versions priced as low as $19,745, have almost doubled so far this year to 164,408.

Other such vehicles haven’t done nearly as well. Nissan’s pure-electric Leaf, which debuted at the same time as the Volt and retails for $36,050, has sold just 4,228 this year, while the Honda Insight, which has the lowest starting price of any hybrid in the U.S. at $19,290, has sales this year of only 4,801. The Mitsubishi i, an even smaller electric car priced from $29,975, is in even worse shape, with only 403 sales.

Toyota’s unveiling of the original Prius caught U.S. auto makers off guard. GM, then under the leadership of Rick Wagoner and Bob Lutz, decided it needed a “leapfrog” product to tackle Toyota and unveiled the Volt concept to considerable fanfare at the 2007 Detroit auto show.

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