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Tesla Motors Inc (TSLA): Even This Automaker Is Outselling the Chevy Volt

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It’s true: Punchy start-up Tesla Motors Inc (NASDAQ:TSLA) is already outselling the much-hyped Chevy Volt.

Tesla Motors Inc (NASDAQ:TSLA)Earlier this month, Tesla Motors Inc (NASDAQ:TSLA) said it had exceeded its own first-quarter sales target, delivering “at least 4,750” examples of its all-electric Model S luxury sedan to customers.

Contrast that with General Motors Company (NYSE:GM), which sold 4,421 of its plug-in hybrid Volts in North America during the first quarter, according to a Bloomberg report. Nissan (OTCBB:NSANY)‘s electric Leaf took third place in the plug-in rankings with 3,695 sales.

That’s a great story for Tesla Motors Inc (NASDAQ:TSLA), which is succeeding with its sleek and powerful (and expensive) electric coupe against considerable odds. But what does it say about GM? Is it time for the Volt to be grounded?

A green-car darling that hasn’t found a big market
The Volt was supposed to be the new face of post-bailout General Motors Company (NYSE:GM). One of the few major product-development programs that GM kept funding through its own financial crisis in 2008 and 2009, the Volt was the high-tech green darling that, in some minds, was supposed to justify the Obama administration’s decision to bail out Detroit’s largest automaker.

The Volt’s sluggish sales have led to a lot of politically charged hot air since. But beyond the squabbling, the Volt — which is essentially an electric car with an onboard gas-powered generator to keep it charged — is a pretty nice product that works as advertised. Every Volt owner I’ve ever talked to says he or she loves the car, without hesitation. It’s well built and lives up to GM’s claims.

But it has never sold in the numbers that General Motors Company (NYSE:GM) hoped for when it launched the innovative plug-in hybrid late in 2010. GM hoped to sell 10,000 Volts in 2011, its first full year on sale — but managed to move only 7,671.

At the time, GM officials said they weren’t disappointed, that they were still building “awareness” of the Volt’s virtues — and announced a plan to make 45,000 Volts for the U.S. in 2012.

That didn’t happen, either. Not even close. In fact, it only took until March for GM to halt the Volt’s production line, saying that it was “matching supply to demand.” Last year’s U.S. Volt sales totaled 23,461 — a great increase over 2011, but not anywhere near enough to live up to CEO Dan Akerson’s hopes for the model.

Volt sales so far are running a bit ahead of last year’s pace in the U.S., up 8.4%. That’s a decent increase, a little ahead of the overall U.S. market’s 6.4% gain through March, but it’s not setting the world on fire.

Is it time for General Motors Company (NYSE:GM) to pull the Volt’s plug?

GM is about to double down on the Volt idea
GM certainly doesn’t seem to think so. While rivals such as Ford Motor Company (NYSE:F) and Toyota Motor Corporation (ADR) (NYSE:TM) are doubling down on conventional hybrids with added “plug-in” capability, GM is pushing ahead with its electric-car-with-a-generator idea — and with pure electric cars as well.

The upcoming Cadillac ELR. Photo credit: General Motors Co.

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