Volt mania! To hear GM tell it, it’s sweeping the country. In a stream of news releases, the resurgent automaker has heralded the car-of-the-year awards – of which there have been many – cited dealers practically fighting off a frothing public eager to see it up close, and announced with fanfare the vehicle would go on sale nationwide six months sooner than projected.

All this, yet GM actually sold fewer than 700 Volts in its first two months on the market – 326 in December and 321 in January. Meanwhile, Volt’s humble gasoline-powered cousin, the new Chevrolet Cruze, rocked 13,631 units in the first month of the year alone.

Chevrolet Volt, GM
image via GM

To some extent this outsized treatment of the Volt was to be expected. Years in the making and revolutionary, the extended-range electric Volt was always more a statement about GM and its intention of being a player in the unknown automotive future than it was a bid to sell a lot of cars. We knew the Volt was a peephole into that future, not the endpoint, not the thing itself.

Yet GM’s full-court marketing press on the Volt – and the mere fact that the car made it to market in time, and it works, at least so far – invites the question: What does the Volt’s early reception mean for the car, for GM, and for EVs in America? The question seems especially appropriate with President Obama calling for 1 million EVs on U.S. roads in coming years. After all, the Volt is, as of right now, the best-selling EV in America, its two-month total of 637 easily besting pure-battery competitor Nissan Leaf at 106.

“It’s really easy to get caught up in the excitement,” Rebecca Lindland, who watches the auto industry for IHS Global Insights, said in an interview. “I mean, what an amazing achievement for GM, to create this vehicle and see it in the market as planned and performing as well as anyone would have hoped.”

Beyond the news flurry, GM has stoked real speculation that the Volt might grow much faster than projected. At the Detroit auto show in early January, CEO Daniel Akerson said the company could build up to 25,000 Volts this year, a big leap from the planned 10,000, and would extend the Volt powertrain to a multipurpose vehicle and perhaps other models in the next couple of years. Soon afterward, a report sourced to company insiders said next year’s target of 45,000 might be in for an even more substantial revision, possibly to more than 120,000.

That’s a lot of cars.

Lindland, for one, doesn’t see it happening – and not because she doesn’t love the Volt. She’s a big fan of the car. As she put it, “People want to be green, but only to the point where they’re inconvenienced. Volt pushes out that point where people begin to feel inconvenienced.”

On this count, Volt appears to have scored a significant victory over the Leaf, vindicating GM’s decision to build a novel extended-range car instead of a pure electric. This assessment from New York Times auto critic Lawrence Ulrich has been typical: Volt’s “ability to drive like an electric car when you want it, but coast-to-coast on gasoline should you need, is its huge advantage over short-range, cord-bound EV’s like the Nissan Leaf,” he wrote.

Chevrolet Volt, GM
image via GM

GM’s Chevy Volt communications manager Rob Peterson called it the “weekend factor.”

“For some people, a car is a tool for simply getting you to and from work five days a week,” Peterson said. “But I think what you’re seeing in the Volt’s reception is recognition that overwhelmingly, Americans view their car differently. They want to drive a couple hours to Grandma’s house on Saturday. They’re going to the mountains. Their car gives them freedom, and with Volt, you’re not constrained.”

But Lindland also knows something about consumer preferences, and based on that she’s inclined to spell the Volt’s future as n-i-c-h-e. She points to hybrids to make her case. “There are many hybrid options available to consumers,” she said. “The industry is doing its job, making hybrids available and affordable. And yet consumers aren’t rushing to them.”

This might be shocking to dedicated environmentalists who bought Priuses years ago and wouldn’t think of purchasing a pure-gasoline vehicle, but as Lindland pointed out, “despite all the talk about them, despite Prius becoming this incredibly well-known brand, hybrids are still stuck below 3 percent of the market.”

In fact, in 2010, hybrids went from 2.7 percent market share to 2.4 percent.

Given that, Lindland can’t imagine how the Volt could rocket to 120,000 vehicles in 2012. In fact, a recent forecast from her put the Volt and Leaf together up to 120,000 – but not until 2015. Her skepticism – or perhaps the word is realism – is backed up by a recent study from a panel of auto-industry veterans, analysts and researchers. They suggested the Volt’s early success could be misleading, as GM cashes in on enthusiastic early adopters who will soon grow scarce.

electric vehicles, chevy volt, pike research 2011 forecast
image via GM

“From the perspectiveve of the ordinary car purchaser,” the panel wrote, “the (plug-in-electric vehicles) to be offered over the next several years are likely to be perceived as expensive, risky investments that could cause unexpected inconveniences. In other words, it may not be very easy for dealers to sell PEVs in high volume to average retail customers.”

Detroit insider Peter M. De Lorenzo, author of the Auoextremist website, echoes that view. He’s even more enthusiastic than Lindland about the Volt as a technological achievement – but at the same time is perhaps more skeptical that its positive reception signals fundamental change.

“In Portland or in San Francisco or Washington, places like that, this is really big stuff,” De Lorenzo said in an interview. “But that’s not nearly the wider country. For the rest of the country, they’re looking at a whole new generation of very good compact cars delivering 40 mpg with none of the costs associated with the hybrids or electrics. Those are cars Detroit is betting on and that are going to need to sell in big numbers to keep companies in business.”

De Lorenzo and Lindland also noted the lure of cars that don’t get anywhere near 40 mpg, but do a lot better than they used to.

“The car-based SUVs are doing great,” Lindland said. “Are they ‘green’ cars? No way! But in many peoples’ eyes they’re greener than they used to be, and that’s enough. The reality of the American consumer is if you can improve a Ford Explorer’s by five miles per gallon and get 25 on the highway, that’s good enough. That’s the kind of car most Americans still want.”

Chevrolet Volt, GM
image via GM

How’s that for irony: If the auto industry wasn’t doing such a good job improving gas mileage on many models, it might be able to sell more electrics.

But what if the Volt were less expensive? Its $41,000 price tag – before a $7,500 tax credit – has been knocked as prohibitive. GM seemed to gamble that early adopters wouldn’t be stopped by it (although it did soften the blow a bit with an attractive lease option). Now, with the prospect of selling to more price-conscious consumers looming, “removing cost” is definitely a goal in the next few years as the Volt evolves.

“That’s a normal process for any new product,” GM’s Peterson said. “When bringing a product to market, there’s a point where you have to draw a line and say, ‘OK, this is what we’re going with,’ even if you see things that could either bring down cost or improve performance. Those have to wait for the next go-round, along with further technological advances and key learnings from the early consumer experience.”

Peterson pointed to “power controls” – things like power steering and power breaks – that can be improved in a Volt 2.0. A CNNMoney article that explored the issue in depth offered other possibilities: a Volt with a smaller and thus less expensive battery; cheaper batteries as a result of technological advances; and a new type of motor that uses electromagnets instead of expensive “permanent magnets.”

Still, making the Volt cheaper will only get you so far, De Lorenzo believes. And as well as the Volt is doing now, he cautioned that this is still a new vehicle largely untested by the rigors of the consumer marketplace.

“This is a very complicated vehicle,” De Lorenzo said, “and as great an engineering feat as it is, it’s going to take some time to see how it performs.” GM’s Peterson agreed, saying, “We are painfully aware of how quickly things can turn for you on the Internet.” That’s why GM pursued a careful strategy in bringing the car to market: “We have spent a great amount of time and effort to train dealers about the Volt,” Peterson said. “We started off in select markets. We want to make sure the dealership experience is a good one. We’ve got the Volt call center where owners can get answer to their questions. We’re being very aggressive, very active to find out any issues.”

And yet we’re hearing talk of possibly 120,000 vehicles in 2012. To be sure, fleet sales could boost GM Volt sales significantly. GE in November said it would buy 25,000 electric vehicles by 2015, almost half – including some Volts – from GM. Officially, however, Peterson stood by the 45,000 figure for 2012 production. Not a bad idea, De Lorenzo said.

“The Volt is very much an image play for GM,” he said. “It’s a technological tour de force, and it is a great symbol for the company. They don’t need to sell huge number of cars. For years Chevrolet used the Corvette to bring Dad into the dealer, and then the family would settle on some other Chevy. In this new world that we’re living in, Volt can achieve that for Chevy dealers.”

Which at this point, it seems, might be enough to call it a success.

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