Toyota's Prius V outselling Chevy Volt, so what?
The horse race over which of the electric or hybrid cars outsells the other is supposedly going to determine which of these electrified cars wins over the others. To an extent we want winners and losers, because supposedly the car that sells the most is the best one. Those of us who bought Beta VCR's back in the day know those VCR's were outsold by an inferior alternative technology, which only shows that the best selling model isn't always the best. It's a fact that the Toyota Prius V is outselling the Chevy Volt by a wide margin, but does this mean anything?
The fact is that Toyota Prius V sales totaled 8,399 units for 2011, while Chevrolet Volt totaled 7,671 units. This looks like a neck-and-neck race until you realize that the Prius V didn't go on sale until October 2011, while the Volt was on sale the whole year. In 2 1/2 months there were more Prius V's sold than the full year of Chevy Volt sales. Now this is starting to look bad, right? The Prius V is way ahead of the Chevy Volt in sales.
While these sales figures look bad for the Chevy Volt the voice of ones high school physics teacher comes to mind yelling something about how we can't compare apples and oranges. There are several differences between the Prius V and Chevy Volt which could affect the relative sales of the two.
The most obvious difference is the price. The Chevy Volt base MSRP is $39,999 while the Prius V base MSRP is $27,160. Obviously the higher price car is affordable to a smaller set of people. That is, until you look at total cost of ownership to realize that electricity as a fuel is cheaper than gasoline on a per-mile basis meaning that Volt owners have fuel cost savings. This means the prospective buyer will have to do more analytical work to compare the Volt and Prius V on their price, putting the Volt at a disadvantage.
The Prius V has been available from every Toyota dealer from its launch date. On the other hand, the Volt was initially available only in 6-8 states plus Washington DC. Availability of the Volt widened throughout the year. In June GM announced that dealers nationwide were beginning to take orders for the Volt, but in the same breath released a map showing full nationwide availability wouldn't begin until November 2011. Similarly the Chevy Volt has been in purposely limited production, while the Prius V was not.
The Toyota Prius has a huge advantage in brand acceptance, loyalty and maturity. In every-day terms, there's a zillion people who know and understand what a Prius is, while very few people understand what a Volt is, or its advantages and disadvantages. Contrarily the Chevy Volt is a brand new vehicle, only on the market for a year, and car buyers are still learning what it is.
Similarly Prius is conceptually easier to understand as a car that gets better gas mileage because the electric assist does something to improve efficiency. The Volt is more conceptually complex because you've got electricity and gasoline being used in combinations with which "we" (collectively) haven't experienced enough to understand. The Volt is positioned as an electric car, except it has a gasoline engine, which technically makes it a plug-in hybrid, and somewhere along the way we've lost the casual car buyer on the distinctions between these different ways to classify an electrified car. What this means is the public at large is in a collective learning process over what these means, where electric cars fit into our collective lifestyle, and so forth. The Prius V, is a "normal hybrid" that everybody understands, and the Volt is this different sort of machine that "we" are still learning about. While the Chevy Volt has many advantages, it is at a disadvantage to regular hybrid cars due to being more complex.
The Prius V is bigger in all dimensions than the normal Prius, and in particular has a large 34 cubic foot cargo area in the back. The Chevy Volt on the other hand has an 11 cubic foot cargo area. The Prius V wins here on practicality.
Because of the T-shaped battery pack on the Volt, there's a hump in the middle of the back seat, limiting the Volt to carrying four total people. The Prius V doesn't have this problem, and can carry five people. The Prius V wins again here on practical terms.
The Chevy Volt has been under political fire for most of its existence. Whether it's people ragging on GM renaming the company as "Government Motors", or the Volt being slanderously referred to as Obama's car, or the total range mistakenly described as 40 miles, or more recently the overly hyped blown out of proportion scare over the battery pack fire, many political figures and pundits have repeatedly attacked the Volt. This clearly will have affected Chevy Volt sales.
As we can see the Toyota Prius V has many sales advantages over the Chevy Volt, even though the Volt has several distinct technical advantages. In the Prius family, the more correct model to compare against the Chevy Volt is the Prius Plug-in. That car is technologically more similar to the Volt than the other Prius models, is similarly sized to the Volt, has a similar fuel complexity combining electricity and gasoline, and with a $32,000 MSRP is closer in price to the Volt. That sounds like a fine comparison, except we don't have any Prius Plug-in sales data because it's deliveries don't start until March, and even then only in 15 states to start, with nation-wide rollout occurring later in the year.
In short the field of electrified cars is young enough that there aren't directly comparable cars from different automakers with which to make meaningful comparisons. Instead we're left with imperfect sales comparisons between cars which have quite a few differences.