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Strong demand for the Chevy Volt’s European cousin

Opel AmperaThe Chevy Volt is a sales success for GM, just not in the United States. The Opel Ampera, a re-badged version of the Volt sold in Europe, is on its way to meeting GM’s sales targets for this year. Chevy has shifted so few Volts this year that it had to shut down production to get rid of overstock, so why is the same car so popular in Europe?

The Ampera went on sale in February and Opel has already received 7,000 orders, putting it more than half way toward the company’s 2012 sales goal of 10,000. “We are extremely pleased with the continuing demand for our Ampera,” said Enno Fuchs, Opel’s e-mobility launch director. “This news shows us that our sales target of 10,000 units for 2012 is well within reach.”

In contrast, Chevy only sold 603 Volts in January and 1,023 in February. In 2011, the Volt’s first full year of production, Chevy sold 7,671 of the extended-range electric cars. GM shut down Volt production on March 19 since it already had 6,300 cars (about a five-month supply) in inventory.

The Volt and Ampera are virtually identical, a product of what car salesmen call “badge engineering.” Both cars use the same Voltec powertrain, consisting of a gasoline engine-generator, an electric motor, and lithium-ion batteries. The Opel has a different front fascia, but otherwise it looks exactly like the Volt. It also retains the Volt’s interior layout. Both cars were named “European Car of the Year” for 2012. So it’s not like the Ampera is an appreciably better design.

Critics say the Volt is too expensive; its base price is $39,995, which is a lot for a compact car, no matter how technologically advanced it is. In Europe, a Volt would cost 29,946 euros. That seems like less, but the difference is due entirely to exchange rates. In Germany, Opel’s home market, an Ampera costs 43,900 euros, or about $58,629. In Germany, a Toyota Prius only costs 25,750 euros, and a Nissan Leaf is 36,990 euros. An Ampera costs more than its main rivals in Europe, just as the Volt does in the U.S. In the U.S., the Volt is also eligible for a $7,500 federal tax credit.Chevy-Volt

Europeans seem more willing to spend the extra euros on an Ampera than Americans, so perhaps they have different priorities. Americans are quaking in fear over the threat of $5.00-per-gallon gas, but Europeans have paid the equivalent amount for years. Not only do European drivers have to endure the spasms of the crude oil market, they also have to pay a larger percentage of taxes every time they fill up. Despite the same high base price, an Ampera could save its European owner more money than a Volt.

Paying big money for a small car is also a point of cultural divergence. Most Americans equate size with luxury, but size is less important to European buyers. “Premium compacts” like the BMW 1 Series and Audi A3 are popular over there, but not here.

GM may need to recalculate its U.S. sales pitch, but at least the company is getting a return on its investment somewhere.

Updated: Corrected to reflect differences between the Volt’s and Ampera’s base prices in U.S. dollars.