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2015 Chevrolet Volt.

General Motors

Chevrolet's Volt plug-in hybrid was born in crisis, coming to market not long after General Motors' June 2009 bankruptcy. You'd expect the company would have learned a few lessons along the way.

And it has, says CEO Mary Barra. You'll see proof in January at Detroit's auto show.

When the 2016 Volt launches in the second half of 2015, it will represent a significant leap forward in technology, design and refinement, Barra recently told the Detroit Economic Club, adding the new Volt "will store more energy in its battery pack with fewer cells, yet go further on a charge. It will accelerate faster. And the car's gas generator will come from an all-new GM engine family and use even less fuel."

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The updated standard-bearer for GM's electrification strategy needs a makeover. Sales in Canada plunged 24 per cent last year – although the drop is in part attributable to the end of taxpayer-funded EV subsidies in British Columbia. The bigger issue for GM is that since the Volt arrived in dealerships, the competition has heated up dramatically.

Plug-in versions of the Ford Fusion and C-Max, not to mention the Toyota Prius, are among the newcomers, and the ranks of plug-ins is due to expand dramatically in the coming months and years. At the same time, buyers have a huge number of gasoline-electric hybrids and pure EVs from which to choose. In the world of electrified cars, the Volt looks and feels dated.

And the quality needs work. The latest reliability survey from Consumer Reports ranks the Volt fourth from the bottom among hybrids and electric cars and a long way below the top-ranked Lexus CT 200h.

"The scorecard on the first-generation Volt is good, but not everything we wanted," said Barra. "We sold fewer than we expected. But, again, we have learned so much, including that breakthrough technology doesn't always advance in a straight line."

Still, GM has sold nearly 70,000 Volts and buyers surveyed by third-party researchers say they love their ride. GM says its own data shows that Volt owners who regularly charge their vehicle typically drive more than 1,561 kilometres between fill-ups. Some Volt owners, said Barra, say they get the "equivalent of 100-200 miles per gallon."

The next Volt will have a battery with 20 per cent more storage capacity, fewer cells and it will be lighter by 13 kilograms. The drive unit will be more efficient and lighter, and the on-board "range-extender" or generator will be an efficient 1.5-litre four-cylinder gas engine, not the dated four-banger from Europe that GM put in the original Volt. GM will release new EV range estimates in January at the show.

Here's the best way to judge the success of the second-generation Volt: will it sell in greater numbers without any taxpayer-funded subsidies? If so, GM will have a global winner on its hands, proving that the company can, indeed, learn the lessons of the marketplace.

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