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Toyota's Prius V outselling Chevy Volt, so what?

To gauge the success of the Chevy Volt, against which car should it be compared, and does the Toyota Prius V make a fair comparison?

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.


SomeoneOverThere (not verified)    February 11, 2012 - 3:29AM

We could also add that, with the Chevy we wont get 30 miles with the batteries EVER while the numbers on Prius` papers are basically what we all can get. Using the proper words for general public, if I buy a Chevy I get cheated, if I buy a Toyota I get what I read on papers or sometimes even something better. Lets face the facts.
People nowdays have some clue about what they buy and it seems little by little we realize of what companies with questionable manners (GM) do or sell.

* Note: And no talk about the poor Chevy`s reliability. No only unable to get 30 miles on batteries but I also have the risk of losing engine`s power anytime. I guess many people know this sentence: `Buying a Vauxhall/Opel is buying problems.
And we shouldnt forget a really important thing, Volt`s ad shows how you can commute no using gasoline (again, you cant get 30 miles with its batteries) but never name the poor general performance; in long trip the Volt falls far behind the Prius.

nsb (not verified)    February 11, 2012 - 11:18AM

In reply to by SomeoneOverThere (not verified)

Wait a minute. I have a volt and on my worse day, I get 32 miles on a charge. My highest was 50. I average 38. I live in cold climate that effects battery life. I love the volt and am averaging 140 MPG. Lets see the Prius beat that. Chevy has improved reliability, has best German automakers, and is neck to neck with Japanese. Why do u think the cruze is outselling the corolla? American cars are back in the game and we should all be proud.

nsb (not verified)    February 11, 2012 - 11:22AM

In reply to by SomeoneOverThere (not verified)

Wait a minute. I have a volt and on my worse day, I get 32 miles on a charge. My highest was 50. I average 38. I live in cold climate that effects battery life. I love the volt and am averaging 140 MPG. Lets see the Prius beat that. Chevy has improved reliability, has best German automakers, and is neck to neck with Japanese. Why do u think the cruze is outselling the corolla? American cars are back in the game and we should all be proud.

Paul Scott (not verified)    February 11, 2012 - 3:45PM

In reply to by SomeoneOverThere (not verified)

Just because YOU can't drive efficiently doesn't mean others can't. Several of my friends drive Volts and they all get 40-50 miles on the batteries. It's easy to hypermile. I drive a LEAF and easily get 100-120 miles of range while others struggle to get 80. When I've ridden with them it because obvious why they were getting low efficiency. They were accelerating way too fast and not coasting enough. They were tailgating on the freeway necessitating lots of braking. When I drive on the freeway, I almost never touch my brakes.

Mark (not verified)    February 11, 2012 - 4:34PM

In reply to by Paul Scott (not verified)

Let's be clear, when it's minus 10 outside and i am in bumper to bumper traffic with the electric heat going ( love the instant on electric heater in the 2012 volt btw) I still get 40 to 50 km before going all gas... Just driving it like the old tech Lexus it replaced, nothing special.
No wonder Honda and the like are shaking, they have no answer to the volt. Toyota has a shot at staying in the game but they are scrambling ... What a difference from a few years ago!

Mike (not verified)    February 12, 2012 - 12:17AM

In reply to by SomeoneOverThere (not verified)

What are YOU smoking?? My WORST day in the Volt was today at 30 miles on battery. it was 18 degrees and I drove with the heat blowing strong. I have gone 47 miles without the engine starting and still had battery left during mild weather. I drive 26 miles to work (20 highway) every day using 60-80% of the charge, and top off there. Since 11/29/11 I have driven 3754 miles on 11.8 gallons of gas. 4.5 gallons of that were consumed on a 260 mile round trip to mid-state Missouri from St. Louis. I have driven 3378 of that totally on battery, or 90% electric only miles. My lifetime average is 318mpg. Since my one and only fillup I have driven 1650 miles on 3.0 gallons of gas, or 550mpg. I have driven 103 miles on electricity only in one 24 hour period, I have driven for several extended stretches without using any gas at all. The most recent stretch was between Jan 28 and Feb 10 driving 538 miles without the gas engine kicking on.
Thousands of Volt owners are EVERY DAY disproving the statement that you can't get 30 miles with its batteries we do it routinely. we have incredible customer support, with a personal advisor assigned to each and every one of us assigned a personal Volt Advisor to call or email with questions or concerns. This car is a gem, don't disparage it in ignorance.

Anonymous (not verified)    February 12, 2012 - 9:10AM

In reply to by SomeoneOverThere (not verified)

I own both. The volt gets 40 to 50 miles per charge. This costs me $1.25 in electricity. Then it goes into gas engine mode, where I'm getting 35 miles to the gallon. In the first 1,000 miles I've used 4 gal of gas (14 dollars) and about 25 dollars of electricity. Total of just ess than 40. The Prius uses about 22 gal of gas...costing about 75 dollars. The volt is more comfortable but does only seat 4.

Anonymous (not verified)    February 11, 2012 - 5:16AM

What a great article! I am a huge Toyota fan, but I have to say that I just did not really look at any other vehicle maker.

The article is informative and seems balanced. I think it keeps GM in a good light, and I hope that they hang in there. Electricity is so expensive in Japan, for reasons we all understand, that GM cannot be expected to sell many there, but the relative cost of electricity in the US makes it look like a competitor.

I do agree that they are apples and oranges, and I knew that from the beginning. What I did not know was the the Volt had a gasoline engine. So yes, a comparison to the plug in prius seems apt. And yes, Toyota has been slow at delivering their vehicles for reasons that we all understand, but they are catching up.

I think it is great, though, to see the competition and all of the different flavors of vehicles coming. Tesla and Toyota will do something one of these days, and different hybrid trucks, buses and vehicles of all kinds are on their way because Toyota is licensing its technologies.

I guess the main point is that everybody wins by having a choice and by using resources wisely.

Maybe GM could look to build some really cool fleet vehicles rather than just doing everything on a retail basis. Here are some ideas for some sweet government contracts. These would go well in the US:

natural gas engine hybrid vehicles (cost per mile rather than miles per gallon)
wind and solar smart grids with fleet vehicles (forest and park services, EPA)

phil (not verified)    February 11, 2012 - 8:38AM

I like anonymous didnt know the volt had a gasoline engine.It seems to me a gas/electric hybrid that you dont have to plug in at half the price of the one you do have to plug in would all other things being equal,be the better choice.If the volt could get say 100 miles on battery alone that would cover most peoples daily commute without buying any gas that would be great but if they can't currently get 30 there along way from making sense at 40 grand especially.

Anonymous (not verified)    February 11, 2012 - 12:15PM

In reply to by phil (not verified)

Actually, accoridng to a recent survey by NHTSA (or some other national entity), 78% of Americans commute 40 miles or less a day. So for 78% of Americans, the Chevy Volt can essentially gives you gas-free driving, with the flexibility to take a 1,000 mile trip every now and then without worrying about where to charge.

Pretty good design, if you ask me.

Rob (not verified)    February 11, 2012 - 4:21PM

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

The 40 miles (39) actually was the average total daily driving distance, the average work commute was 12.6 miles. This means that if people are given the ability to charge at work or at other locations like parking lots at the mall whilst the owner does their shopping then the percentage of all electric driving goes up substantially, likely to over 90%.

Anonymous (not verified)    February 11, 2012 - 5:11PM

In reply to by Rob (not verified)

Just wanted to say I've owned a Volt since June. I commute about 50 miles each way to work and I can plugin at work. During this past July and August the only gas I used was on a vacation trip to Acadia in Maine. It was nice to drive 300 miles and not worry about having to stop and plugin. During the week I have the savings of an electric, on weekends I have the convenience of using gas if needed. Gee, nice concept.

Frank Sherosky    February 11, 2012 - 11:22AM

I find it amazing that some do not know the Volt has a gasoline engine. I guess GM did a bad PR or nobody read the details.

The Volt is an in-line EV with a gasoline GENERATOR engine that acts as a range extender. Those words say a lot. The propulsion is 100% electric except under heavy high-speed loads to protect the elect motor, where there is a transmission connection; but that is temporary under a specific condition.

The 40 mile electric driving range was chosen based on the government's own studies that the average daily drive is 40 miles. Obviously, those beyond that distance will experiecne the gen-motor kicking in; but the propulsion drive is still electric motors. What is the difference whether you stop to plug in or have the gen-motor give the battery that extra set of electrons? Actually, it's more convenient at this stage of our tech development.

More driving range will cost you a lot more money as with the Tesla. The Ford Focus EV and the Nissan Leaf will get you 100 miles, but I would have trouble driving from Detroit to Traverse City to see my sister. That's where the Volt shines.

Until we get higher density batteries that cost less, the price will not come down sufficiently to please the masses. That's why I vote for a push on metal-air bateries, preferably zinc-air.

The Toyota Prius V is a practical car, but that price is about to get some heavy competition from the likes of small displacement IC engines like HCCI and split-cycle with electric turbos, stop-start and PbC batteries for power boost, not to mention air-hybrid. Plus, we need lighter cars with aluminum body structures, like the Tesla and the new Mercdes SL. That will take time, too, to become mainstream.

Anonymous (not verified)    February 11, 2012 - 12:17PM

I think this article is biased. The idea that a Volt is too technologically advanced is ridiculous. It’s just a glorified electric car with a gasoline generator. It uses the same degenerative breaking principles as all other electric vehicles but is so weak at distance the only way to make it viable is to add the generator. When I say viable I mean only as a means of transport. It makes no leaps in technology or function over the Prius and fails at most of its claims. Only recently has GM and the other US automakers begun to rival the foreigners reliability. That’s why people buy the Prius!

Frank Sherosky    February 11, 2012 - 12:30PM

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

The Prius tech is not rocket science either. It's a parallel hybrid. In fact, the reason it gets such high mileage is as much attributed to the choice of IC engine as its parallel electric drive. The Atkinson-inspired engine technology makes a clear difference, though.

Question is, what will be the next step to attaining the 2025 mandate of 54.5 MPG? The Prius at least has a head start, but Ford's EcoBoost is on the right track, especially if it added an electric drive in parallel. That is another reason why I believe the split-cycle engine technology on the horizon with air hybrid or electric hybrid options in parallel will give the Prius a run for its money a well as its value; and the masses will be able to afford it.

Anonymous (not verified)    February 12, 2012 - 5:21AM

In reply to by Frank Sherosky

Prius has more than a "head start" to "54.5 mpg". It already counts for a bit over "70 mpg" for CAFE purposes. The "54.5 mpg" is NOT equivalent to combined mileage you see on the Monroney sticker. It equates to closer to ~36 mpg on the sticker.

Google for 6 Ways New CAFE Standards Could Affect You Edmunds to read about the doublespeak.

The Prius is a series/parallel design, thanks to its power split device.

David Herron    February 14, 2012 - 9:53PM

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

The correct word is "regenerative" not "degenerative".

And yes, the generator/engine makes up for a relatively small battery pack. It's quite an interesting tradeoff between an electric range that fits a high portion of daily driving, or the option of going for pure electric like you'd get with the Nissan Leaf or Ford Focus Electric or Mitsubishi iMiev.

I didn't say the Volt was too technologically advanced. My point is that calling it an electric car, but with a gas engine, and getting straight what all that means, it adds complication to understanding the car. There are some advantages that come from this setup, but will the average joe grasp those advantages ... e.g. we have in the comments here an example of not understanding that there's a gas engine/generator and that the car has more than 40 miles total range.

Harrier (not verified)    February 11, 2012 - 4:41PM

You have not discussed anything about the comparison of how the vehicles handle as automobiles.

The Prius will get you from A to B with reasonable gas milage (~45MPG) but is not a fun car to drive. It has weak acceleration and handles like a box.

The Volt gets from A to B in style with 136 MPG (what I am getting now) and I look forward to driving it every day. It has zippy acceleration thanks to the electric motor and has amazing handling because of the low center of gravity that the T shaped battery offers.

This is comparing apples to oranges and anyone who drives a Volt and Prius will tell you that they are not even remotely similar experiences.

David Herron    February 14, 2012 - 9:57PM

In reply to by Harrier (not verified)

That's because, unfortunately, I don't have any experience driving either to the extent necessary to make an adequate driving comparison.

I've driven a rented 2010 Prius for a weekend. It seemed nice enough. Not exactly speedy, but good enough to handle itself in traffic. Comfortable. The most egregious thing for me was that I felt like I was deep inside a tunnel and had narrow slits out the front and back to see through. This is because the front roof-line comes quite a ways down, and in the rear the liftback-hatch-lid thing has a line that runs through the middle of the field of view.

I've driving a 2011 Volt around an area of the Presidio in San Francisco, max speed around 30 miles per hour, and a bit hilly. It handled well, and the gas engine kicked on during the drive and was quite okay. But clearly not enough to experience the zippy acceleration etc. With a 140+ kw electric motor it should have really good electric speed.

Anonymous (not verified)    February 13, 2012 - 12:59AM

I think the reason that many people were not aware of the fact that the Volt has a gas engine generator or that the gas engine can temporarily power the vehicle in rare circumstances is because GM marketed (misleadingly) it as a fully electric vehicle and confuse people with their ads showing someone at a fuel station saying "it can also use gas". They originally said the gas engine would only act as a generator for extended driving but did not mention that it might also power the vehicle directly as we have learned shortly after the car was made available for sale.

As the article mentions and many here have commented, it is more similar to a plug-in-hybrid than just an electric vehicle with a gas generator as GM has marketed and would be more of a direct competitor to the Prius plug-in or upcoming Energi (Focus,C-Max,Fusion) plug-in models from Ford.

Based on comments here, it seems that the range of electric driving for the Volt is acceptable for most commutes, but the efficiency when the battery is depleted is not as good as a regular hybrid. That might also be why GM's ads do not include that it can get only 35mpg when not operating in fully electric mode. If I had to take a guess, I would say the Ford and Toyota plug-in hybrids will be very close in matching the electric range of the Volt while achieving better highway hybrid-like fuel economy.

Many mid-size non-hybrid sedans already come close to or reach 35 mpg on the highway so this would cause many people to reconsider buying the Volt if it is only worth driving for 40 mile commutes and unimpressive mileage if it cannot be charged for longer trips.

That's when people start to consider that if they are going to buy a car that saves money only for short commutes that they can buy a much simpler electric car like the Leaf which can at least go further on a full charge and pay less for the car than the Volt. That's the only reason that I think the Leaf is also outselling the Volt.

Otherwise, the Volt should be selling much better due to all the hype. I had a chance to test drive one when GM was taking the cars to different cities and they brought a couple to our job site. At the time, I was convinced that they would become as popular as the Prius but now I am not sure. I have a feeling that GM will update the Volt very soon to make it more competitive.

On the reliability front, I'd like to hear what people say from the ownership experience. Electric motors tend to be very reliable, so I highly doubt that GM engineering could mess up the car. Once all cars become electric or plug-in hybrids, I am pretty sure there will no longer be concern about reliability or dependability of one brand vs. others.