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Electric Car Sales Increase 228 Percent

Max Baumhefner

Posted October 31, 2012

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Automakers operate on a different calendar, in which the 2012 model year recently came to a close.  As my colleague, Luke Tonachel, explains, this was the year of the green car, with record new fleet fuel efficiency, a 55 percent increase in hybrid sales, and more than a three-fold increase in plug-in electric car sales.  The last of those three records might come as a surprise to some, given the prevalence of stories pronouncing the electric car dead on arrival.  While it’s true that plug-in electric car sales still represent a very small fraction of total auto sales, model year 2012 saw about 38,000 Americans buying plug-in cars.*  That’s a 228 percent increase over model year 2011.*  Not bad for a new technology, introduced as the country recovers from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

Critics often point out that plug-in electric car sales pale in comparison to incumbents such as the Ford F-series, Honda Accord, and Toyota Camry, but almost all vehicles fall short by that measure.  Auto sales are lopsided; of the 265 vehicle models currently available, the top 20 comprise over 40 percent of all new sales.  The Chevy Volt, often described by critics as a failure, falls right in the middle of the pack, outselling half the cars, trucks, and SUVs on the market.  It may not be a smash hit, but it’s certainly not a flop as some would have you believe.  In fact, the Volt is outselling many well-known models, including:

  • Mazda: Miata, CX-7, Tribute, RX-8, 2, and 5
  • Mercedes: S-Class, CL-Class, CLS-Class, SLK, SLS AMG, R-Class, G-Class, B-Class, and SL-Class
  • Land Rover: LR2, LR4, and Range Rover
  • Audi: A3, A5, A6, A7, A8, Q7, R8, and TT
  • Lexus: GS, GX460, LX570, CT200h, HS250h, LFA, SC430, and LS
  • BMW: Z4, X6, 1-Series, 6-Series, and 7-Series
  • Nissan: 370Z, Quest, Cube, GT-R, Xterra, Titan, and Armada
  • Porsche: Boxster, Panamera, Cayman, Cayenne, and 911
  • Chevrolet: Caprice and Corvette

You don’t hear pundits dismissing all those cars as failures, though they’re all selling less than the Volt.  In fact, five of the models named above made Car and Driver’s vaunted 10 Best Cars list for 2012.

Dismissing modern plug-in electric cars less than two years after their introduction is also simply premature.  The hybrid Toyota Prius is now the world’s third best selling vehicle, but that didn’t happen overnight.  In 2000, the first calendar year the Toyota Prius and Honda Insight hybrids were made available in the US, combined sales were 9,350.*   When the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf became the first widely available plug-in electric cars, combined annual sales were 17,840––twice that of the first year hybrid sales.*  It should be noted that the Prius was not available for all of the year 2000.  However, in their second year, the Prius and Insight combined for just over 20,000 sales.  Second year sales of electric cars in contrast, led by the Volt, Leaf, and Plug-in Prius, are on pace to reach about 50,000 by year end––2.5 times the comparable year for the now ubiquitous hybrids.*  That upward trend should continue over the next several years as automakers introduce up to 40 different new plug-in models.*

Nevertheless, it's going to take some time for electric cars to reach a mass market, as is the case with any new technology.  It took 45 years for electricity to reach 40 percent of our homes, and a full 64 years before the telephone did the same.  Thankfully, technology adoption appears to be accelerating; mobile phones saturated the market in just 20 years, and tablets and smartphones are proceeding at an even quicker pace.

There’s reason to hope electric drive technology will continue this trend.  Once folks get behind the wheel of an electric car and experience 100 percent torque from a standstill, a singularly quiet cabin, and the convenience of refueling at home, they'll have a hard time going back to a car that relies on thousands of explosions of fossil fuel every minute.  In many ways, vehicle electrification is the most important evolution in automotive technology since we ditched the steam engine.

In the long run, the advantages inherent in driving on electricity will attract drivers who are sick and tired of gas prices spiking every time there's a violence in the middle east, a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico, or a fire at a refinery in California.  They'll turn to electricity, a cleaner fuel made from a diverse supply of domestic resources, the price of which has been equivalent to buck-a-gallon gasoline for the last forty years, and is predicted to stay that way for the next three decades.

* Sales data and forecasts from Alan Baum & Associates.

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AlexOct 31 2012 01:37 PM

You're being disengenous about the Chevrolet models the Volt is outselling. The Caprice is for police fleets only, the Corvette is going to be redesigned next year, and the other two were discontinued.

Also, the Nissan GT-R was always meant to be low volume. Ditto for the Porsche models that are outselling the Volt.

For the billionth time, leave the gearheads alone.

Max BaumhefnerOct 31 2012 02:00 PM

To be clear as to the methodology, I simply listed all of the non-plug-in models listed in the database offered by that group of manufacturers, which includes the Chevy models to which you refer, as well as low-volume sports cars such as the GT-R. According to that database, there is no Porsche model which is outselling the Volt. Those are year-to-date figures.

AlexOct 31 2012 02:30 PM

Still, it would have been nice for that to be referred to in the post.

Eric SmothernerOct 31 2012 11:42 PM

Thanks you for a refreshingly appropriate article on the plug-in vehicle segment which is certainly here to stay. Your assessment of plug in electric car owners is correct, once you drive electric the internal combustion engine seems like a clumsy relic of a bygone era... just like the steam engine.
Love my Volt!

Dana PearsonNov 1 2012 05:07 AM

great article...I eagerly await the day I can go electric! as a gardener gardener I need a light truck or the ability to hook up an ultra light trailer. I refuse to spend another penny on fossil fuel garbage! so till then I'll continue plodding along the ancient Nissan 4 banger I picked up when i mothballed my gas guzzling f250 crew cab...

No More!

Don MooreNov 1 2012 10:52 AM

My experience reflects the observations of this blog. Once I looked past the overblown rhetoric, I found the Volt to be rather a marvelous piece of engineering. All the ownership aspects of a plug-in electric vehicle have been very positive. So much so, in fact, that I leased a Nissan Leaf for my wife to use for strictly local travel ($116.00 per month, a deal I could not refuse!). Both vehicles have been rock solid performers and absolute delights to drive. I have virtually no gasoline bill ($28 per month for 5 months) and my home charging station only cost me $61.00 for BOTH vehicles last month for 2470 total miles driven. Convenience, torque, quiet and smooth ride, no problems whatsoever. No oil changes. I could not be happier with the switch. I use American energy, mostly hydroelectric in my area. Electric is not for every person, but for far and away the majority it will be a winner.

I spent more money on gasoline for 4 days of boating on a lake than I will use all year in my Volt. I hope to never go back to gasoline cars.

Ken Fischer Nov 1 2012 11:20 AM

Our Volt is an amazing vehicle. We have driven it 6,000 miles and used less than fifty gallons of gas in a little more than six months. Unbelievably quiet, quick and solid. This is the future.

And, we've noted no significant change in our electric bill as we charge it mostly at night. Lastly it's well made and has yet to visit the dealer.

Max BaumhefnerNov 1 2012 01:21 PM

Thanks Ken, Don, Eric, and Alex, for your comments. Great to hear testimony from folks who are living with these cars on a daily basis.

Kent PurdyNov 1 2012 02:18 PM

Yep, I spent a year's worth of gasoline for my Chevy Volt in the 2 days I was on the lake in my boat. The price of gasoline has put a huge dent in how often I go boating, but the Chevy Volt has given me freedom to run errands or drive around as often as I like.

Paul ScottNov 1 2012 03:45 PM

I sell the LEAF for a downtown LA Nissan dealer.

(EDITOR'S NOTE: we had to remove a portion of this comment; as a 501(c)3 nonprofit, NRDC is prohibited by U.S. tax law from engaging in -- or even hosting -- any discussion relating to upcoming elections on our social-media presences. Thanks for understanding.)

Recently, Nissan reduced the price of the LEAF dramatically and found the price point at which a lot of people are willing to pay. We are now leasing the LEAF for about $260/month with a $2,500 down payment. The $2,500 comes back to you about a month later from the CA rebate. This is less than many people pay for gas each month, so in essence, they are getting a "free" car. I tell them they are letting the oil companies "buy" their car for them and they love that.

We are close to selling out of the 2012 model, and the 2013 will be made in Tennessee, so I'll be able to sell an American made car that runs on American generated renewable energy. Can't wait!

Edward EllyattNov 1 2012 05:31 PM

I have had my Volt 2011 #1506 for 20 months now and over 41,000 miles. It is without a doubt the finest car I have ever owned. I am 61 and will never own another car that is not a plug-in. It is quiet , fun to drive, very economical

Michael CoatesNov 1 2012 11:51 PM

Max, taking nothing away from your basic premise that plug-ins are doing quite well. I think the main issue had been created by supporters of plug-ins, who set unrealistic expectations of high sales (GM saying it would sell 60K Volts this year; the DOE predicting 1 million plug-ins on the road by 2015). Those high bars have led many pundits, even those who believe in the vehicles, to label them a failure based on falling so short of expectations.

Shad Nov 2 2012 05:28 PM

@Michael Coates: GM said it had the capacity to produce up to 60K Volts - not that it was projecting to produce that many (learned that lesson in 2011!)

yuval Brandstetter MDNov 9 2012 04:21 AM

As a driver of a 100% electric car, the Renault Fluence ZE (zero Emissions) I concur with every word, especially the pleasure of driving an instant responder silent acceleration demon. And this is a family sedan, not a sports model. In Israel I also enjoy unlimited range, I repeat, unlimited range, thanks to the Better Place battery swap scheme. Driving my Chevy Impala feels pedestrian, smelly, crude, and wo, the Impala cost more to purchase and twice as much to run.

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