Sales of General Motors Co.'s Chevrolet Volt rallied back in February from early year lows, as the company sold more than 1,000 of its hybrid electric plug-in vehicle last month.
That marks the Chevy Volt's third-best selling month ever, and the numbers serve as the first sign that GM's foray into the electric vehicle market has weathered a storm of criticism and negative publicity late last year and early this year. GM sold just 623 Volts in January, and it sold 281 last February.
Analysts said it wasn't too surprising, given that the Volt became available for sale nationwide in February. And it went hand in hand with a strong overall vehicle market. Vehicle sales in the U.S. will total around 1.1 million in February, according to two forecasts, up 6 percent from last year.
But the increase was significant because of the political pressure the Volt has come under in the last few months. Consider: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration formally opened an investigation into the Volt after crash testing produced battery fires days or months after the tests.
That led to a testy Congressional hearing that was fueled by divides along the political aisle, with Republicans questioning GM chairman and CEO Dan Akerson and the NHTSA on why the investigation was kept private for a number of months. And in February, Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich lambasted the Volt as an Obama car, and lamented that if he owned one, he wouldn't be able to put a gun rack in it.
It's extremely significant in terms of we didn't see a collapse in sales because of all the negative publicity, said Michael Omotoso, an analyst at LMC Automotive.
Omotoso thinks GM could really ramp up Volt sales in the coming months, as GM increases incentives for the car and rising gas prices draw consumers to more fuel efficient vehicles. And beginning in March, Volt owners in California will be allowed access to the state's carpool lanes and can qualify for a $1,500 state rebate. LMC Automotive's sales forecast for the Volt stands around 30,000 for the year.
GM spokesman Shad Balch said last week the company wants to move swiftly past the political theater in the coming months, after Akerson said in the Congressional hearing that the Volt had been turned into a political punching bag.
We're going to do a big push between now and the summertime to get beyond the political antics that occurred with the Volt at the end of last year and beginning of this year with the battery investigations, Balch said in a phone interview. We're going to focus now on the real value proposition of the car.
Jesse Toprak, the vice president of industry trends and insights at TrueCar.com, said it was crucial that the Volt's fires had occurred in the testing lab and not in real-world situations. He pointed to Toyota Motor Co.'s accelerator recalls in 2009 and 2010, in which faulty accelerator pedals led to deaths.
He said the resulting reaction was extremely exaggerated.
It was completely blown out of proportion, Toprak said. The Volt is a great car.
With gasoline prices rising, especially in important markets like California where some service stations are charging nearly $5 per gallon, more consumers could find the plug-in hybrid option attractive.
As gas prices rise, it makes practical sense for more and more customers, he said.