General Motors Co. plans to bring a special version of the Chevrolet Volt to the California market that will qualify the plug-in hybrid sedan for a $1,500 state rebate and a coveted carpool lane sticker.
The Volt, which the automaker has made the poster child for its environmental credentials, has sold more slowly in California than its all-electric rival, the Nissan Leaf, in part because it previously did not qualify as a vehicle that solo drivers could use in the state's network of time-saving carpool lanes.
GM said it would begin shipping a special version of the car with a "low emissions package" next month that satisfies the requirements of the California Air Resources Board, with sales to start the following month.
"These vehicles include additional emission-control equipment and software, which reduce emissions," Chevrolet spokesman Robert Peterson said.
But whether it will make a large difference in Volt sales is questionable, said Thilo Koslowski, an auto analyst at Gartner Inc.
A small segment of auto buyers will pay more for the ability to get "from point A to point B faster," but starting this year the Volt will face more competition from other cars that are expected to qualify for the same rebate and lane access, he said
Ford Motor Co. is to start selling an all-electric Focus and offer a plug-in hybrid version of the larger Fusion. Toyota Motor Corp. has a Prius plug-in, and Honda plans a plug-in version of the Honda Accord. Tesla has its all-electric Model S sedan.
Also, the value of the carpool lane sticker is diminishing as California adds more toll lanes and starts to block solo drivers — regardless of the type of vehicle they drive — from those lanes.
Officials are converting 25 miles of carpool lanes on the 10 and 110 freeways into toll lanes. Carpoolers and buses will be able to use the lanes for free, but all solo drivers will have to pay up to $1.40 a mile during peak rush-hour traffic.
"There's also still a big premium for such vehicles that discourages adoption by consumers. You might instead use some of that extra money to buy your way into these new express lanes," Koslowski said.
Sales of electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids such as the Volt, which run on a combination of battery and gasoline power, were just a tiny segment of the U.S. market last year.
Nissan's Leaf, an all-electric vehicle, sold just 9,674 units, and Chevrolet sold 7,671 Volts. More than 60% of the Leafs were sold in California, in part because they qualified for the carpool lane permit and a state rebate. Only about 30% of the Volts sold so far have gone to California residents.
GM said it was in the final paperwork stages of having the car approved by state officials. A spokesman for the Air Resources Board would not comment, saying only that the certification process was confidential.
Previously the Volt did not qualify for any California incentives because of emissions that occur when its electric charge runs out and a four-cylinder gasoline engine kicks on. The gas engine acts as a generator to power the electric motor, or in some instances will provide power directly to the drivetrain. The Volt can travel about 40 miles solely on electric power, depending on weather and driving conditions.
But if the Volt qualifies with state officials, buyers of the California version would be eligible for a $1,500 rebate on top of a $7,500 federal tax credit and carpool lane access. All-electric vehicles such as the Leaf, which don't have emissions, qualify for the sticker and a $2,500 rebate.
GM said it would not charge California buyers an extra fee for the low-emissions package. Volts have a sticker price of $39,995.