For the first year since major manufacturers began selling electric vehicles in the U.S., the Chevy Volt appears like it will lose its crown as best-selling plug-in hybrid behind a competitor with less than half its electric range.
That competitor would be the 25-mile EV range Toyota Prius Prime based on the long-established Prius “Liftback” hybrid, and through October it’s just 28 sales behind the 53-mile EV-range Volt, and gaining steam.
The Volt and Prius have traded places all year in monthly sales results, with the Volt being in its second year since a redesign, and the plug-in Prius, despite limited availability earlier this year, doing well in its first year as a revised model.
Through October, Chevrolet reported 16,710 sales, Toyota reported 16,682 Prius Prime sales, and Michigan-based analyst Alan Baum estimates by Dec. 31 the Toyota will have 20,300, and the Chevrolet will have 19,500.
A Long Run
The Volt was first launched amid a firestorm of publicity in 2011, garnering enough car-of-the-year awards to break the shelves off General Motors’ trophy case – and the dubious honor of being a poster child for Obama policies detested by Republicans and others.
Its original 35-mile EV range and gas backup let people drive all-electric in a quick, quiet, peppy car that GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz had said last decade during its gestational stages could be automaker’s best shot yet at dethroning a Toyota Prius hybrid.
That talking point was soon relegated by GM to best-forgotten status, but the Volt quickly gained a raft of very loyal fans as a solution for energy security, climate change emissions, and the tip of the spear for a U.S. driven technological industry in the making.
Toyota’s non-plug-in Prius was never threatened by it, selling many times the volume most years this decade, but its plug-in version first launched in 2012 also came along – perceived by die-hard Volt fans as a wannabe with at best one-third the electric range.
The Volt and plug-in Prius – renamed from Prius Plug-in Hybrid to Prius Prime to denote the range topper – are the only two plug-in electrified vehicles to have received a full redesign.
The two are alike in several respects, unalike in several others, and overall they’re two very different attempts to fulfill the same mission statement of being a front-wheel drive plug-in hybrid hatchback with screaming good efficiency.
Volt’s Claim to Fame
Aside from inventing the category, the Chevy Volt has been treated as a showcase of GM’s electric car prowess that has given rise to the similarly named 2017 Chevy Bolt EV which last month surpassed the Volt’s year-to-date sales.
The Volt’s key boasting right is its 53 miles EV range which is enough for more than 80 percent of all people to drive practically every day without the gas engine ever turning on. The extended-range EV was purpose-built from the ground up as a what it is. It is not a modified version of another car as is the Prius Prime.
With a large-for-a-plug-in-hybrid 18.4-kWh T-shaped battery occupying the middle tunnel area, its 53-mile EV range far surpasses the mere 25 miles provided by the Toyota’s 8.8-kWh pack taking some space in the rear area.
Based around a 1.5-liter four-cylinder hybrid system, the Volt is also more powerful, with 149 horses and 294 pound-feet of torque, versus the 1.8-liter Prius’ 121 net system horsepower and torque is not advertised, but not in the same league as the Volt’s.
The 3,543-pound curb weight thus accelerates from 0-30 in 2.6 seconds, quicker than the 2.9-second Bolt EV, and makes it to 60 in an estimated 8.4.
Toyota’s 3,365-pound Prime accelerates to 60 comparably to the former Prius, or in the neighborhood of 10 seconds. It is not sluggish, but it’s no hot hatch either. Car & Drivertimed it to 30 in 3.5 seconds in electric mode, and 3 seconds in hybrid. To 60, it took 12.2 seconds in electric mode, and 10.2 seconds in hybrid. The quarter mile took 18.6 long seconds @72 slow miles per hour in electric mode, and 17.7 seconds @79 in hybrid mode.
In its Volt testing, Car & Driver pegged 0-30 in 2.5 seconds in either hybrid or electric mode. Zero-60 took 7.6 seconds in electric and 7.4 in hybrid, and the quarter mile was accomplished in 16.0@85 in electric, and 15.8@86 in hybrid.
In the handling, brtakinfg and cornering department, bit cars are satisfactory, as is interior comfort in what are essentially four seaters. The Volt technically is a five-passenger car, but its middle rear perch is best suited for short hops, or as a location to place a child seat.
Prius Primes’ Claim to Fame
The Prime rests on the laurels of the Prius which has evolved for 20 years since its 1997 Japan market launch, and which is now in its fourth generation.
And while the powertrain gives up all-important EV range, it tromps on the Volt in both electric efficiency and gas efficiency.
Its 54 mpg fuel economy in gas-hybrid model is 2 mpg better than all the 52 mpg Liftback trims except the 56 mpg Prius Two Eco, and wallops the Volt’s 42 mpg estimate.
And though it gets less EV range, each EV mile uses less energy as it has a 133 MPGe rating versus the Volt’s 106.
Couple this with interior cargo volume of 19.8 cubic feet compared to the Volt’s 10.6 cubic feet, standard Prius Safety Sense advanced safety suite, and Toyota’s established repuaution and resale value, and the value starts to add up.
Putting the icing on the cake is the price differential.
The Prime comes in three trims, Prime Plus ($27,985), Prime Premium ($29,685), and Prime Advanced ($33,985) – all including an $885 destination fee. The Volt comes in two trims, the LT ($33,995), and Premier ($38,345) – including an $825 destination fee.
Looking at entry level, the Prime, which is perched midway in the price range of the non-plug-in Liftback, is eligible for a $4,500 federal tax credit, and potential state incentives as the case may be. The Volt is eligible for a $7,500 federal credit – so it stands to halve the $6,010 difference in sticker prices between the less-expensive Prime and itself. Assuming federal credit, the Volt nets to $26,495 and the Prime nets to $23,485.
That $23,485 by the way is $875 below the price of the base Prius One Liftback which stickers for $24,360 with destination. This helps explain in part why the Prime has sold so much better than the more costly, and shorter range former plug-in Prius.
Two Months To Go
November and December will decide whether the Volt surprises, but it has been underperforming this year. Last October it had 18,517 sales compared to this year’s 16,710.
Aside form the Prime, cars like the Bolt and others have been taking sales from it. The Volt could likely sell better and meet more needs than sales indicate, but GM chooses to give it limited advertising mainly aimed at special-interest buyers.
Nor have Chevy dealers been universally enthusiastic about the Volt. While some dealers do a great job, anecdotes abound of those who do not push it, know very much about it, or stock many, or outright steer buyers away to easier selling cars.
Both cars are very competitive and solid attempts at what they do, but it appears this will be the year the Volt is no longer top in class however unless something changes.
And same for next year, if Baum’s 2018 projections of 22,000 Prime sales to 21,000 Volt sales prove correct.