GM Was Right to Stop Making the Chevrolet Volt
As a Chevy Volt owner for over seven years, I completely understand why many Volt owners are upset at the news that GM was cancelling the Volt and not pursuing any other Voltec-based vehicle platforms. Thanks to a fervent and vocal anti-GM enclave of the EV community, the Volt's cancellation prompted renewed claims that GM was – once again – attempting to "kill" the electric car. These accusations gained additional traction thanks to GM's not having an immediate, plug-in replacement for the Volt. However, from an objective viewpoint, GM's decision to cancel the Volt and the Voltec program was correct.
In this story, I will explain why GM was right to end the Volt program, their reasons for not applying the Voltec powertrain to other platforms, and the reasons the electric vehicle community shouldn't be concerned about GM "killing" their electric cars. However, I will also explain what GM did wrong by cancelling the Volt program in the way they did and what they could have (and should have) done differently.
The Chevy Volt Cost Too Much To Build
While GM is often painted as an evil corporation bent on the destruction of humanity, the reality is that they are a profit-driven company that owes primary allegiance to its investors. Regardless of their affinity for a brand, concept, or vehicle, they have to demonstrate to their investors either immediate profits or – at the very least – a pathway to profitability. Through that lens, maintaining the Volt and Voltec programs made absolutely no sense.
The Chevrolet Volt is extremely complex and expensive to build, and its supply chain looked like someone threw a pile of spaghetti noodles onto a map of Michigan that spilled off onto the rest of the Midwest. These complicated supply chains made it difficult to build Volts profitably, and as a low-volume, low-margin vehicle, it was destined for the chopping block.
The only thing that was saving the Volt from what would have normally been an easy decision to cancel the program were the zero emission vehicle (ZEV) credits that offset GM's cost for building the Volt. However, even if Corporate Average Fleet Economy (CAFE) standards and ZEV credit system remain in place (which is no longer even certain), a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) such as the Volt provides GM with increasingly fewer ZEV credits over time. Essentially, as ZEV requirements become stricter, the financial benefits GM sees from building PHEVs decreases.
With the release of Chevrolet Bolt EV, which would be responsible for earning the lion's share of GM's ZEV credits, the Volt program in the United States became very hard to justify. What is more, while there was a clear pathway to profitability for the Bolt EV; however, the same could not be said for the Volt.
The Chevy Volt Offered No Pathway to Profitability
An all-electric car like the Chevrolet Bolt EV has a clear path to profitability. Even if the ZEV credits end completely, the only thing keeping the Bolt EV from being highly profitable was battery prices. According to a UBS tear-down report of the 2017 Chevy Bolt EV, it cost GM $28,700 in parts and labor to build. That means that, at the leaked $145 per kWh price that GM was paying LG for battery cells, the Chevy Bolt EV's battery alone represented more than one third of the total cost to build the Bolt EV.
However, with battery prices projected to fall well below $100 per kWh in the near future and GM's moving electronic component manufacturing facility in Hazel Park, MI, the Bolt EV's pathway to profitability was obvious. By 2021, the Chevy Bolt EV's battery cost of $100 per kWh would save GM nearly $2,000 in manufacturing costs, despite being projected to be more capable in terms of both energy and charging speeds.
The Chevy Volt, on the other hand, owed its manufacturing cost to more than just the battery. While it's true that there was some room to improve the Volt while still lowering costs over time (as GM had already been doing throughout the Volt’s history by moving outsourced manufacturing to the United States, improving the battery, and reducing the use of rare earth elements), the price reduction floor was still much higher in the Volt than in the Bolt EV.
Because the Volt was burdened with both an electrical powertrain and an internal combustion powertrain that offered fewer opportunities for cost reduction, the Volt could never achieve the same profitability as either a pure internal combustion vehicle or a pure battery electric vehicle.
The Chevy Volt's Appeal Was Too Limited
Some Volt proponents noted that it actually had similar U.S. sales numbers to the Chevy Bolt EV, so if GM was fine keeping the Bolt EV around, they should also keep the Volt around. As I noted above, cost and lack of profitability were key considerations; however, the Volt’s low sales numbers did also contribute to the decision. Though the Bolt EV and Volt’s domestic sales numbers were close, GM is a global company, and simply put, the Bolt EV has broader appeal and more widespread demand than the Volt.
First, the raw U.S. sales numbers for the Bolt EV and Volt did not provide an accurate representation of demand. The Bolt EV was actually supply constrained while the Volt had no such limitations. Many prospective customers were complaining about the availability of the Bolt EV. While it's true that GM was over delivering Bolt EVs to California (dealership lots full of Bolt EVs made it appear as though demand for the Bolt EV was not as high); however, the Bolt EV delivery numbers outside California were often so low that it was near impossible to secure a test drive. Most non-California Bolt EVs were sold before they even arrived at the dealership lot.
Early on, the demand for the Bolt EV outside of California was so high, in fact, that GM had to intervene to stop California dealerships from selling directly to out of state buyers. The Bolt Stats! website still has a group called “The Bolt Smugglers” that is made up of Bolt EV owners who were able to have Bolt EVs shipped to them before California dealerships were directed to end the practice.
The Chevrolet Volt, on the other hand, had no such constraints. While some Chevy dealerships did refuse to carry any plug-in vehicles, the Volt was widely available across the country, and after eight years on the market, it failed to gain any significant traction in the market. Despite the Volt's winning numerous awards and GM dedicating several extremely expensive Super Bowl commercials – some of them were pretty good, too – the Volt failed to win significant market share.
Again, GM is a global company, and the foreign markets were even less friendly to the Volt than the United States. GM had high hopes for the Volt program in Australia and Europe; however, the Holden Volt and Vaxhull/Opel Ampera (European Volt) programs were abject failures. Over the course of four years, only 246 Volts were sold in Australia, and total European sales for that period barely hit five figures.
Those markets rejected the Volt outright, so GM soon shut down deliveries to those regions. In fact, a strong argument could be made that it was the Ampera's failure in Europe (a market that was already heavily shifting to electric vehicles) that influenced GM's decision to sell off their Opel brand to PSA Group. And again, while GM could barely sell the Ampera in Europe, there was actually a waitlist for the Ampera-E (Bolt EV). In fact, one of the biggest lasting criticisms of GM in the European market at this point is that failed to deliver on their promised Ampera-Es.
Why the Voltec Powertrain Doesn't Work for Larger Vehicles
A number of Voltec fans have stated that they understood why GM might be moving away from small cars due to declining sales and lack of interest; however, those same proponents also demand that GM use the Voltec powertrain in larger vehicles such as trucks and SUVs. There's only one problem: It doesn't work.
The Voltec system is designed to be all-electric, so the owner only uses the gas engine when absolutely necessary. Unlike the BMW i3's range extender, which is so small that it struggles to maintain freeway speeds when the battery is completely depleted, the Volt's range extender is perfectly matched to the Volt's energy draw at 70 to 80 mph freeway speeds. That 40 or so horsepower of constant power draw falls well within the Volt generator's 74 horsepower max output.
The Voltec system works well in a car like the Volt because the car is small and aerodynamic. This means that, even when the small battery is completely depleted, the Volt can maintain highway speeds using only the gas engine and generator. However, in those scenarios, the Volt is literally running at half power, with a small buffer in the battery for short surges of power. Deplete that buffer, however, and the Volt drops into Reduced Power mode. Even in the small, aerodynamic Volt, maintaining freeway speeds up a significant grade can be a struggle, especially under reduced power.
Undaunted, Voltec proponents also point to Toyota's plug-in hybrids as evidence that GM could apply the Voltec platform to larger vehicles. For example, at the LA Auto Show, Toyota recently unveiled the RAV4 Prime, which can achieve 39 miles of driving on electricity alone using Toyota's plug-in Hybrid Synergy Drive (HSD) technology. The problem is, Toyota's HSD is fundamentally different than the Voltec system.
Toyota's HSD emphasizes the internal combustion engine over the electric motor system. For example, the Toyota Prius Prime's internal combustion engine alone is capable of outputting 93 hp while the two onboard electric motors can only combine for 91 horsepower. Essentially, Toyota's plug-in hybrid system is designed to run off the gas engine under all circumstances but off the electrical propulsion system only under limited circumstances. That's the exact opposite of the way the Voltec system works in the Chevy Volt.
In other words, in order to achieve what Toyota is doing with their HSD, GM would need to fundamentally change the Voltec architecture. It would lose its essence as an electric vehicle powertrain with a gas generator backup, and it would become just another hybrid. To support a larger format vehicle – an Equinox, for argument's sake – the range extender couldn't just be proportionally bigger because the power required to overcome aerodynamic drag would be far higher in a larger vehicle.
For an Equinox sized vehicle, the range extender couldn't be same half-peak-power configuration used in the Volt if it is to be capable of overcoming drag at freeway speeds. Rather, it would likely need to be at least two thirds to three quarters of peak power. So if a Voltec Equinox had a 150 kW (200 hp) main drive motor, the backup generator would likely need to be at least 100 kW (134 hp). That represents significantly higher costs, increased weight, and larger powertrain volume. These result from a larger engine (possibly a six cylinder like the Pacifica Hybrid – another plug-in hybrid that is only partial electric) to a larger fuel tank required to support lower fuel economy.
This is before any considerations are made for towing or other heavy loads, and this is in the Equinox, which is a relatively efficient midsize SUV. The Voltec system would scale even more poorly for larger, less efficient SUVs, and it definitely wouldn't work for trucks. At that point, there would need to be parity between the power output of the main electric drive motor and the gas generator, meaning it would be more effective on all fronts to simply make a standard series hybrid with no secondary motor/generator. The result would be similar to the Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrid, which was anything but a success story.
Chevy Volt's Manufacturing Facilities to Be Used for Electric Trucks
In regards to the argument that GM’s ending the Volt and Voltec program are somehow incongruous with an “all-electric” future, I heartily disagree. One simply needs to look at how GM has followed up since that announcement. While it’s true that GM didn’t have an immediate, plug-in replacement for the Chevy Volt (more on that below), everything else they have done is demonstrating a movement toward all-electric vehicles.
For example, GM is converting the shuttered Detroit-Hamtramck plant (where the Chevy Volt was built) to build electric vehicles. The factory is currently being retrofitted and retooled in order to build three upcoming, all-electric offerings: An Escalade SUV, a Sierra truck, and a Hummer SUV. GM is spending $300 million to retool their Orion facility (where the Chevy Bolt EV is built) so that they can build their upcoming midsize, all-electric offering, currently being referred to as the “Bolt EUV.”
For these larger format vehicles, the elegance and simplicity of an all-electric powertrain far exceeds what could be done with any variation of a hybrid drive system, plug-in or otherwise. That is especially true in the case of a vehicle like an Escalade EV. Simply imagine what would happen if a Voltec powertrain was scaled up and used in a Cadillac Escalade EV, and then compare that to a competing all-electric such as the Rivian R1S. It's really no contest at this point; a 300 to 400 mile all-electric SUV presents a far greater value proposition than a hybrid SUV that is sometimes electric.
The argument that GM isn't really serious about these larger electric vehicles falls apart further when considering that GM invested $2.3 billion in a joint venture with LG to build a battery production facility in Lordstown that will capable of producing 30 GWh of batteries per year. Even at 150 kWh per large truck or SUV (a good guess, in my opinion), GM would be able to produce as many as 200,000 of these large-format EVs each year.
What GM Should Have Done with the Chevy Volt
One area where I do agree with GM's critics is their concerns about how GM ended the Volt program. Essentially, they killed off the Volt before they had a ready, all-electric replacement. While the Chevrolet Bolt EV is a great multipurpose electric vehicle and an excellent runabout, it's not as capable at freeway speed, long distance travel as a smaller, more aerodynamic electric sedan would be (e.g., the Hyundai Ioniq Electric or Tesla Model 3).
The Volt's hatchback sedan format was a high-efficiency platform that would perform well as an all-electric, long distance vehicle. If they continued using the same Volt platform, GM would need to get creative with how they packaged the battery for an all-electric Volt (such as what Opel did with their Corsa-e or Porsche did with the Taycan), but dropping the internal combustion engine and supporting components (in particular, the fuel and exhaust system) would open up enough volume to add significantly more energy capacity.
GM already demonstrated that they have improved their battery chemistry with the new 2020 Chevrolet Bolt EV's battery achieving 150 Wh/kg of energy density at a pack level. If GM could find enough room for even a 50 kWh battery pack (again, similar to the Opel Corsa-e), an all-electric Chevy Volt could easily exceed 200 miles of range, even at freeway speeds.
This Chevy "Volt EV" wouldn't be the most compelling electric vehicle, but GM could sell it for a lower price. Plus, it would be positioned very well against something like Hyundai's recently refreshed Ioniq Electric with 180 miles of range.
In my opinion, the better choice would have been to simply adapt the BEV2 chassis (which is already used in the Chevy Bolt EV) to an existing sedan format. My preference would be the Chevrolet Malibu, which would easily achieve 300 miles of EPA range, even with a modest 70 kWh battery pack. This would also better align with customer expectations as shared by GM President Mark Reuss in a recent article, though it still wouldn't resolve the issue of upfront price parity with an internal combustion vehicle.
Some Volt Owners Are Still Addicted to Gas
Still, it appears that for many of the Volt owners who are most critical of GM's decision to end the Voltec program, even a 300-mile all-electric sedan wouldn't be good enough. Whether this is because they live in an area where they feel the public charging infrastructure is insufficient or they simply aren't aware of what is available because they are still fueling with gas on long trips, these drivers are insistent that GM needs to continue down the plug-in hybrid path.
For those Voltec and plug-in hybrid proponents, I can only say that they might want to simply stick with gasoline. Based on my experience, the Volt and other plug-in hybrids only fit a very narrow set of driving needs, and more than enough Volts have already been produced to serve that market.
As a Volt owner, I fully appreciate the tens of thousands of all-electric miles of driving I was able to do in the Volt. Even when the infrastructure wasn't in place and I couldn't afford any of the longer range all-electric vehicles capable of meeting my demanding driving needs, the Volt was an option. But times have changed, and even for demanding drivers such as myself, there are all-electric vehicles that are more cost-effective while being fully capable of meeting most people’s driving needs.
If, as a Volt driver, you rarely exceed the all-electric range, it's very likely that a number of similarly priced all-electric vehicles that are currently on the market would serve your needs better than the Volt. Not only are there a number of functionally different vehicle formats to choose from, you may never need to plug these vehicles in away from home or work. A number of Chevy Bolt EV and Hyundai Kona Electric owners I know have still never had to use the public charging infrastructure.
On the other hand, if you always run past the Volt's generous all-electric range, it's very likely that a number of cheaper or similarly priced vehicles would better suit your needs. Whether it be more efficient hybrids with nearly 20% better freeway fuel economy than the Volt or all-electrics with four to five times the Volt's electric range, there are other, possibly better, options. I understand that driving a standard hybrid doesn't carry the same cachet as driving an "electric," but burning that much gas in a Volt really makes it nothing more than an expensive, inefficient hybrid.
One of the key reasons I got the Chevy Bolt EV was because, in my regular routine, I was burning at least 6 gallons of gas a week in my Volt. When I threw onto that my regular road trips, I was easily burning 30 to 40 gallons of gas a month in a car that's supposed to be primarily electric. Even my mother (to whom I gave my Volt) is going through at least one 9 gallon gas tank a month, and she doesn't even drive it that often.
I also understand that going fully electric can be daunting because of its learning curve and lack of familiarity. And yes, in some parts of the country, the public charging infrastructure simply doesn't support long distance travel in a fully electric vehicle. However, those aren't the geographical areas where the Volt was selling well anyway. A majority of Chevy Volts were sold in California where, despite delays and interference from permitting offices and public utilities, the public charging infrastructure is more robust than anywhere else in the nation.
Essentially, if you can't make an all-electric work in a state like California, you'll probably be stuck burning gas for a very, very long time.
To me, it’s clear that GM made the correct, pragmatic decision in ending the Chevrolet Volt and Voltec programs. While they could have held onto manufacturing the Volt a little longer, between working through a UAW strike and retrofitting the Detroit-Hamtramck facility, we’re only talking a few more months’ worth of production. It’s also clear that this is not an indication of GM backing off on electric vehicles, but rather, it is evidence that GM is more committed than ever to building all-electric platforms across their brands and lineups.
While I do agree that GM needs a sleek, efficient plug-in sedan in their lineup in order to offset one of the biggest EV weaknesses (high-speed driving range), I disagree with pursuing internal combustion range extending technology any further. It’s simply a waste, and the Voltec platform itself was incongruous with an “all-electric future.”
See you next time as I give my perspective on Tesla’s holiday Supercharger queues!
About The Author
Eric Way focuses on reporting expert opinion on GM brand electric vehicles at Torque News. Eric is also an instructional designer and technical writer with more than 15 years of writing experience. He also hosts the News Coulomb video blog, which focuses on electric vehicles, charging infrastructure, and renewable energy. Eric is an active member of the EV Advocates of Ventura County, a volunteer organization focused on increasing the widespread adoption of electric vehicles. You can follow Eric on News Coulomb Youtube, on Facebook at @NewsCoulomb as well as on Twitter at @eway1978.