2011 Model Year Holds Great Suspense

Car industry experts are on pins and needles waiting for the beginning of the 2011 model year.

Why? Because the 2011 model year will see the introduction of the Chevrolet Volt, the first “range-extended” electric car, and the Nissan LEAF, the first battery-electric car from a major manufacturer since the controversial General Motors EV1 began its ill-fated run in 1996.

In an era when most cars are boringly conventional, both LEAF and Volt are very unconventional. How they’ll be perceived and how they sell have giant implications for the future of the automobile business.

Right now the LEAF and the Volt are getting plenty of hype, but in reality, their volumes are likely to be small. Yet these are important launches for the two manufacturers involved. The Chevrolet Volt was a key talking point when the debate in Congress swirled around bailing out General Motors a year or so ago. While some claimed GM was beyond redemption, others pointed to the development of the Volt as a clear sign that not only was the company worth saving, but also that it might take the technological lead on alternative propulsion technologies -- if only it were given the chance. Now, given the chance, we will see whether the Chevrolet Volt is indeed a harbinger of the future or a dud.

Nissan didn’t drop into bankruptcy, but it has been widely criticized for being behind its two chief Japanese rivals, Toyota and Honda, in the alternative propulsion sector. So Nissan has decided to take the very bold step of launching a battery-electric car in America. This comes despite the fact that the LEAF’s limited range makes the car a questionable purchase for many.

What may be hidden under the hoopla and hype is the fact that both companies have designed and developed these cars for reasons other than sales volume. These cars’ true purposes include the enhancement of prestige and technological esteem. In addition, they are among the initial salvos in what will become an ongoing industry effort to meet the very challenging Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards that are set to begin arriving in 2016.

Will the Volt and LEAF sell in substantial numbers? Certainly the drumbeat of publicity has long since begun for both of them, and the early reaction of the automotive media has been positive. A close colleague who has driven early examples of both praised their technological sophistication and their driving proficiency. They are not just as good as conventional cars of the same size; they are in many ways better.

But the question that’s yet to be resolved is this: Will substantial numbers of consumers find value in these cars at the prices they’ll be asked to pay? That’s where the two technologically interesting models could fall on their pleasant-looking faces. While clearing the air and doing a tiny bit to ward off global climate change might sound just fine in the abstract, we’ll soon see if people are willing to pay for those attributes.