The low price of fuel, a lack of government support and low consumer interest have made Australia a tough place to sell hybrid and electric cars, according to a high-ranking Holden executive.
Speaking with TMR at the local launch of the Astra and Cascada, Holden Executive Director of Sales Peter Keley said that the fortunes of the petrol-electric Volt were limited thanks to a number of factors.
But the availability of product isn’t the only limiting factor. According to Keley, the high premium associated with electric and hybrid vehicles has been a handicap from the start.
“The Australian consumer tends to be quite pragmatic,” he told TMR.
“They have a ‘show me’ atttitude. If I’m going to spend ‘X’ thousands of dollars more to obtain this technology to lower fuel consumption and running costs etc, there needs to be a pragmatic business case for me as a consumer.
“And that’s lacking, it doesn’t stack up [for Volt].”
Since its launch in August 2012, Holden has only managed only 246 sales of the Volt. So far this year, a grand total of seven have rolled out of showrooms.
Powered by a 16.5 kWh lithium-ion battery, the first-generation Volt is capable of travelling 87km on a single charge. Breach that limit, and a 1.4 litre petrol engine kicks in to extend range to around 600km.
Priced at $59,990, Keley believes the Volt’s cost of entry was prohibitively high even for those willing to pay a premium for an eco-friendly ride, and consequently limited the car’s potential to enter the mainstream.
“You get a few early adopters, but to then capture the next level of consumer which is a fast-follower which leads into the mainstream [consumer], they haven’t accepted the premise at this stage," he said.
“Until we can change the fundamentals of the cost equation, that will remain so.”
With local supply of the retired first-gen model now exhausted, that will be the end of the matter for the foreseeable future.
But Holden’s fortunes with the Volt aren't necessarily indicative of what the rest of the market is experiencing.
While non-fleet sales of conventional hybrids like the Toyota Prius are in decline, private EV sales have been steadily climbing since 2011.
While only 11 electric cars were sold to non-fleet buyers in 2011, a total of 132 found new homes in 2014.
Those EV sales still pale in comparison to the 3049 private hybrid sales logged in the same period, but, against the 4335 hybrid sales achieved in 2013, it’s apparent that buyer appetites are shifting.
A lot of that shift is down to low oil prices, which have been reduced in recent months as OPEC nations seek to exert more control over the global energy market.
But an influx of new product has helped the case for ultra-green cars, with the BMW i3, Tesla Model S and Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV plug-in hybrid (which can operate as an EV) all having launched in the last 12 months.
And cars like the $47,490 Outlander PHEV and $63,900 i3 are evidence that prices are slowly moving in the right direction, with the former offering more space and similar range for less cost than the Volt, and the latter being more luxurious and with a longer EV range for just a small premium.
So where to from here for Holden?
While he wouldn’t be drawn on whether the recently-revealed Bolt EV hatch or Malibu Hybrid are part of the local product plan, Keley remained upbeat about the long-term outlook for EVs and plug-in hybrids.
“Its time will come. Don’t get me wrong,” he said. “Electric engines will be the future, I actually have no doubt about that. It’s just at what point in time.”
“That point in time is certainly not today, unless either the government mandates it or the price of oil goes up sharply. But it will come at some point in time.”