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Does the Volt Need a Jolt?

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Chevy has three months left to meet its sales goal of 10,000 Volts in 2011. (Photograph of a 2012 Volt courtesy of Andrew Plumb/Flickr)

Senior Obama administration officials are in Detroit today, visiting a Ford plant that makes green vehicles and touring the production line of the Chevrolet Volt.

The Volt hit the market late last year with a surge in attention, but its sales so far have been disappointing.

General Motors set a goal of selling 10,000 Volts in 2011. But with less than three months to go, the automaker has moved only 3,895 of the plug-in electric cars, which have an electric battery range of about 35 miles.

One of the Volt’s biggest problems is its hefty price tag. You may be saving on gas, but you’re paying $41,000 for the privilege. And with the economy suffering, that’s a hard sell.

Its closest rival in the electric car market, the Nissan Leaf, is $34,570, and has sold in higher numbers this year. The Leaf is purely electric, without the backup gas engine that the Volt features.

Even some of Chevrolet’s own cars are tough competition. Many of the people who arrive at a Chevy showroom to check out the Volt wind up leaving with the much less expensive Cruze, which has a base price of only $16,720.

Still, GM apparently has confidence. It plans to produce 50,000 Volts next year, compared with 16,000 in 2011. And sales of the Volt, while low, have climbed sharply in the past two months.

Both the Volt and the Leaf are eligible for a $7,500 federal tax credit – though there have been reports that some GM dealers found a way to game the system and keep that credit for themselves.

A GM spokesman told the Chicago Tribune that the Volt is just now hitting showrooms across the country. Until now, the car had only been available in seven test markets, including Michigan, New York and California. And a wrinkle in California law made it difficult for Volt buyers to qualify for a $5,000 state tax rebate that the Leaf and some hybrids were eligible for. But it does qualify for incentives in some states.

Potential Volt buyers have had to weigh whether the Volt would pay off in the end. So, about how long would it take to make up for the premium that you’d pay for a Volt?

Say you drive an average of 40 miles a day. In Chevrolet’s Cruze Eco, which costs $19,245 and gets 42 mpg, you’d be paying about the average cost of a gallon of gas, $3.43, to commute each day – or $1,252 per year.

Now, the Volt. First, let’s take the tax credit off of the MSRP. That brings the Volt to $33,500. With fuel efficiency rating of 37 kilowatt hours per 100 miles and an average price of $.12 per kilowatt hour, your daily commute cost goes down to $1.73—an annual savings of $620. But you’re still paying a $14,255 premium … which would take about 23 years to pay off, at current gas prices.

Still, you get to use the HOV lanes in some states, which may be well worth the cost in the time you save. Plus, you’re getting state-of-the-art technology and helping save the environment, and it’s harder to put a price on that.