General Motors plans to sell an electric version of the Spark, a mini-car that it currently sells outside the United States. GM will sell the gasoline version of the Spark in the U.S. starting next year, and will follow with the electric version in select U.S. markets and around the world in 2013. The electric Spark will be powered by batteries made by A123 Systems, based in Waltham, Massachusetts.
The car is a departure from GM’s current electric vehicle offering, the Chevrolet Volt. For short trips—about 35 miles—the Volt can run on battery power alone. For longer trips, a gasoline engine generates electricity to power the car. The range-extending gas engine is meant to address one of the main drawbacks of electric cars—their limited range on a charge. But adding an engine, and the complex transmission needed to coordinate power from the engine and electric motors, adds significantly to the vehicle’s cost.
That added cost seems to be hurting sales. The Volt was released at the end of 2010 at about the same time as the Nissan Leaf, an electric vehicle powered by batteries alone, and which has a range of about 73 miles per charge. The Volt costs $39,995, down from $41,000 originally, compared to $35,200 for the Leaf. This year, drivers have bought almost twice as many Leafs as Volts. As of the end of September, Nissan had sold 7,199 Leafs, compared to GM’s sales of just 3,895 Volts.
For much of that time, the Volt was only available in some states, but even with the car now available nationwide, it looks unlikely that GM will achieve its goal of selling 10,000 Volts this year, says Michael Omotoso, senior manager for powertrain forecasting at J.D. Power and Associates. “They may have to lower the price more to compete with the Leaf. Although the cars are different, consumers are comparing them head to head.” [Update 10/17: GM says it expects to meet its target of 10,000, and says the sales numbers to date are in part the result of a temporary manufacturing shut down due to retooling at the factory that makes the Volt.]
GM says it decided to build the Spark EV to address anticipated demand in densely packed cities, particularly in Asia and Europe. A spokesperson for GM says the price of a battery-only vehicle will attract customers who don’t have to drive very far and won’t mind the limited range and need for frequent recharging. He also says government policies in places such as California and China can favor battery-only vehicles.
GM has been testing electric versions of three of its cars in small trials in India, China, and South Korea, and will use what it learned there about driver preferences when it engineers the Spark EV. GM won’t say yet how many Spark EVs it intends to make, or exactly where it will sell them.