This month the five-year anniversary of the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt mark the first half decade for mass-market plug-in electrified vehicles (PEVs).
PEVs had existed prior, including the Mitsubishi i-MiEV circa 2009, the limited-production Tesla Roadster from 2008, and others, but the Volt and Leaf began for major manufacturers what is now a growing market built on the back of regular hybrids.
An East-meets-West matchup, the 2011 Leaf and Volt were two different approaches to solve the same concerns over oil dependence, health-related externalities from petroleum burning, and greenhouse gas emissions.
While media immediately declared an unofficial sales “race” between the two, this was largely because the new-fangled cars were the only PEVs from top-tier automakers, but really they share just one commonality: a plug.
In fact they are as different as some imagined them alike.
The Volt, an extended-range electric vehicle (EREV), is a sub-type of a plug-in hybrid and boasted 35 and by the 2013 model year 38 miles all-electric driving. Speed potential was up to 100 mph without the gas engine coming on as long as the battery was charged. A 1.4-liter gas engine then kicked on as a generator to sustain battery charge, power the drive motor while promising no “range anxiety.” In short, it was an engineered compromise, a bridge toward pure EVs that in turn eliminated compromises associated with pure electric cars.
In contrast to the more mainstream-looking Volt, the funky styled Leaf is a pure all-electric car, alternately called a battery electric vehicle (BEV) or electric vehicle (EV). It initially promised 75 miles EPA-rated range which was bumped in 2013 along with U.S. production in Tennessee to 84 miles (though initially the sticker still read 75, or 90 percent of this the first year at the whim of the EPA).
Just as confusing as an alphabet soup of new terms for new vehicles confronting an established paradigm, the two cars faced opposition, criticism, uncertainty, ambivalence, and fence sitting from the media and public – as well as hearty acceptance.
For more on the history of just some issues faced, see also our fourth year retrospective for the Leaf and Volt.
Together, the two have – pick your metaphor – plowed the ground for more PEVs to follow. They have been like the ice-breaking front of an arctic ship piercing through hard and resistant ice (pun intended, as ICE is also an acronym of Internal Combustion Engine) – and feeling the brunt to one degree or another.
In September the world had purchased its one-millionth PEV, and the Leaf with about 192,000 worldwide sales and the Volt and variants with nearly 100,000, accounted for about 30 percent of global sales.
Now three months later, their cumulative sales not surprisingly comprise a similar proportion of the PEV market’s global stock of about 1,135,000 units sold through November.
Of the two, the Leaf has double the Volt’s sales in part due to greater acceptance worldwide, less flak from the media and public, and more assertive marketing by its manufacturer. Nissan just announced it has sold more than 200,000 Leafs, crossing this milestone in time for its fifth anniversary on Friday.
Note 12/10/15: This article followed official word of 200,000 sales in a Nissan press release, but a day later Nissan offered another statement without deleting the first saying it expects by January to sell 200,00 Leafs. Inquiries to Nissan over the contradiction have not been answered. It is believed the company may be hedging, playing it extra safe. If it has not actually crossed 200,000 sales, it will within a matter of days. We are leaving this story intact considering Nissan is the source for the news, and it has not been retracted.
Its 198,000 sales through November were in the U.S. (88,244), Japan (about 57,000), Europe (about 48,000), Canada (3,076), and around 2,000 in other markets.
The Volt, with 103,000 sales cumulative through November has done best in its home country, with 86,636 in the U.S., 5,195 in Canada, and nearly 10,000 Amperas sold in Europe along with a handful of European Chevy and Australian Holden Volts.
GM has since pulled out of the European market while launching the fully redesigned 2016 Volt initially in 11 states following California zero emission vehicle rules.
Since October it’s nearly doubled monthly U.S. Leaf sales which have diminished for the first-generation car awaiting its second refresh. The 2016 model will optionally offer a 30-kwh battery for 23 more miles range over the 84 offered by the base Leaf.
Paved The Way
Innumerable variables affect the global PEV market on a macro and local level, but the contribution by the Volt and Leaf has been substantial.
Whether an honest assessment sees the present state of affairs as purely positive or tinged with negativity depends in part on one’s subjective mental filters.
Today the market is largely driven by regulations including in the U.S., Europe and China. All are demanding ever-cleaner automotive fleet mpg and CO2 scores, and automakers are introducing new electrified offerings into their product assortments.
The Volt and Leaf have been keystone products, but ambitious goals set at the beginning of this decade, including by Nissan and GM were revised, and even President Barack Obama’s one-million PEV target by end of this year will be only 40-percent met.
Early on exuberance over the upside potential of PEVs never anticipated gasoline prices in the U.S. and to a lesser extent Europe dropping as they have, or the pushback from various sources that have kept the PEV market growing slower than projected.
By now some would have projected 1) the Volt and Leaf might have sold many more, and 2) there would be more offerings in the U.S. and other markets.
The phenomenon of “compliance cars” – limited market offerings tepidly following GM and Nissan – has since come along to the dismay of fans who see thin disguises for automakers doing things for California, not because they love PEVs.
The other bright hope for EV supporters has come from Tesla which does love pure EVs, and whose CEO Elon Musk has committed that company into an all-or-nothing gambit that is arguably more aggressive than the Volt and Leaf.
This year Europe and China for the first time surpassed the U.S. but the good news for EV supporters is – while sales of some models would be considered a failure by conventional car standards – they are here, and more are coming.
All told, there are more than 50 highway-legal PEVs in markets around the world. The U.S. presently has around 20, several being limited market.
Worldwide, 70-percent of global sales through August were accounted for by the top-10 PEVs.
Pending are many more, including a few that have EV watchers excited as they promise new benchmarks.
Beyond the second-generation Volt with now 53 miles EV range and ability to run more efficiently in hybrid operation, and on regular-grade gas, Nissan is looking to a second-generation Leaf, maybe by 2018, and more cars are coming.
Chevrolet is finalizing the 2017 Bolt EV which will be unveiled in pre-production form at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this January, Tesla has said March it should reveal its Model 3, and these two plus the Leaf promise “200 mile” range at “mid 30s” price points.
With battery cell costs revealed this year to have plummeted to as low as $145 per kilowatt-hour, according to GM, and with room to decline toward $100 later this decade, the key cost factor making PEVs prohibitive for automakers is being answered.
In 2012 Ford CEO Alan Mulally said the Focus EV’s battery cost nearly as much as one complete gas-powered Focus, thus the business case was tough for automakers, as it has been for some consumers sitting back, and despite heavier-than-hybrid incentives.
Meanwhile, in Europe, the world’s new number-one PEV market, automakers are rushing into battery powered plug-in hybrids and all-electric cars as they seek to meet a 95 g/km CO2 target by 2021 under Euro 6 rules.
Several German manufacturers who once emphasized diesel as clean and green are not singing that tune as resoundingly as before. Volkswagen’s disgrace following a September disclosure of a massive global emission cheating scandal has tainted diesel which held 50-percent market share in Europe. This has at least deflated moral support, and even if diesels could be legally engineered to meet regulations, plug-in hybrids and EVs can do a better job.
However a dark horse is also now making inroads into the alternative energy landscape.
This is hydrogen fuel cell vehicles which automakers including Honda, Toyota, Hyundai, and to a lesser extent nearly every other automaker has said it has potential, and will be part of future product offerings.
But with a one-million PEV head start, limited hydrogen fueling infrastructure, and more supporters favoring battery utilizing cars, while early on hype has been tempered, the case for hope is clearer since the days when the Volt and Leaf were the only game in town.
Despite projections for the years ahead by high-priced market research firms hawking their studies and projections however, the specific course ahead is still anyone’s guess.
In place though are a few constants. Enthusiasts can credit regulations pushing automakers, and they can thank the Volt and Leaf which have done the most work in leading the way for mainstream-level plug-in cars.