Although media reports periodically focus on relatively low sales for plug-in electrified vehicles (PEVs), a few standout models are selling in numbers respectable even next to much-better established non-plug-in hybrids.
The regular, non-plug-in hybrid market has had 16 years in the U.S. to get underway and today the two top sellers – the Toyota Prius and new RAV4 Hybrid – have sold from January through July 58,405 units and 23,943 units respectively.
Below these, the third-best selling non-plug-in model, the Ford Fusion Hybrid, has tallied 15,006 sales through July and beneath that there are a couple others in the 12,000 unit range atop a slew of lower-volume hybrids.
In all, there are around three dozen regular hybrids for sale in the U.S., and these have traditionally been thought of as the domain of environmentally minded buyers. As PEVs have come along over the past five years, however, they’ve naturally pulled some of these customers toward their green appeal.
Another factor which has sapped non-plug-in hybrid sales the past couple years from a peak of around 3.2 percent of the U.S. passenger vehicle market to below 2 percent today is of course unexpectedly low fuel prices.
As petroleum costs have dipped, Americans are plumping up automakers’ balance sheets for trucks, SUVs, and crossovers. Inexpensive gas has actually removed some of the wind from the sails of the both regular hybrids and PEVs, but between the two categories, automotive analysts and automakers have observed PEVs which attract gas-eschewing customers and combine a new-tech appeal have been less hard hit.
Put another way: A hybrid always needs gas, while PEVs can go without part- or full-time, thus the psychographic appeal for PEV buyers is somewhat different from those mainly looking to save at the pump.
Presently the U.S. has 12 battery electric models for sale, and there are 15 plug-in hybrids. The battery electric vehicles are holding down 0.42 percent of the market share in the over-17.5-million unit U.S. passenger vehicle market, and plug-in hybrids are at 0.36 percent.
This 0.78 percent combined is slimmer than the larger, older hybrid market trending through July at 1.92 percent, but within the pecking order of PEVs are a few leaders, as follows:
Tesla Model S – 14,100 estimated
The best-selling PEV bar none is Tesla’s Model S. A phenomenon since launched June 2012, and updated in various ways along the way, it has been well documented as competing against European and Asian luxury cars, and it also surpasses lower priced green efforts.
Its 14,100 sales is better than all but the top three hybrids sold in the U.S., an impressive feat considering most hybrids cost significantly less. Not to embarrass anyone, but not only does it outsell a would-be volume leader like the $20,000 Prius c (12,975 sales), it handily beats upscale hybrids.
For example, the Lexus ES Hybrid has 4,935 sales through July, the RX 450h crossover has 5,414, and the Toyota Avalon cousin to the ES has 4,650 sales reported. And never mind higher-up hybrids from Lexus, BMW, Mercedes, Acura, Infiniti, and Audi that sell in low volumes, with some due to be discontinued as their makers think plug-ins to chase Tesla.
Obviously Tesla’s appeal goes beyond incremental gains in green factor as the hybrids represent, and it stands as a unique car in a category of one luring buyers to all it represents.
Chevrolet Volt – 12,214
The second-generation Volt has not topped the Prius as former GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz had once upon a time suggested it might, but it is doing better than all but five hybrids out of the over-three-dozen for sale.
Despite starting at just around $34,000, it is neck and neck with Toyota hybrids costing thousands less – namely, the Camry Hybrid (12,494 sales) and Prius c (12,975 sales).
Here the comparison is closer than Tesla’s segment-transcending Model S luxury performance sedan. The Volt is positioned as a fuel-saving part-time electric car, and the market is indeed rewarding Chevrolet over better-established, and cheaper hybrids from the well-regarded Toyota.
As true of Tesla, not hurting things is a $7,500 federal tax credit and potential state incentives, which in the Volt’s case gives it nearly net cost parity with the Camry Hybrid which received a through mid-cycle update in 2015.
The Volt is helped by many other factors not least being it was redesigned in 2016, and it has a reputation as being fun to drive and high-tech cool. It’s dimensionally smaller than the true-five-passenger Camry however, and still much more pricey than the Prius c which will be due for a refresh, having been introduced in 2012.
People in this green car demographic otherwise know the Volt’s 53-miles EV range can make it effectively gas-free for more than 80 percent of all daily driving needs, so that and other psychographic factors mean it could be called a relative success.
Ford Fusion Energi – 8,576
The plug-in version and range topper of Ford’s Fusion line is nearly matching the sixth place Prius v’s 8,673 sales on the regular hybrid list.
Smartly styled, and refreshed this year, it’s well below the 15,006 sales of the non-plug-in Fusion Hybrid on a national basis, although some submarkets in California have reportedly seen more plug-in Fusion sales than non-plug in.
Overall, it is doing alright, being up 66.8 percent compared to 2015’s sales through July.
Tesla Model X – 8,400 estimated
Built on the same platform as the S, the Model X crossover’s sales have underperformed what was expected, but still rank well. Tesla chief Elon Musk had once said the company would sell more of the X than the S, but numerous teething problems have seen attrition from what was once reported as a backlog of over 40,000 reservation holders for the car introduced late last year.
As it is, the X priced from the 80s to twice that is also handily outselling all but five regular hybrids, and fittingly also just edges out the sixth-place Toyota Prius v, itself a wagon.
Obviously its appeal, as true for the Model S, goes beyond saving fuel or cutting emissions, but as that is the mission statement of Tesla, it’s doing just fine against other traditional green cars.
Also doing OK is BMW’s just-refreshed i3, which while down for the year by 19.1 percent with 4,359 sales, now has a revised battery option and July’s 1,479 units sold was a 143-percent gain. Nissan’s Leaf even in a very down year also deserves mention with 6,856 U.S. sales through July making it the fifth best-selling PEV – and it is still the world’s best cumulative seller with over 228,000 sold since December 2010.
Other PEVs can be viewed at our sales Dashboard which tracks the entire U.S. passenger market.
While media reports may correctly highlight PEVs are off to a slower start than projected half a decade ago, they are building on the market acceptance and technology set by hybrids.
Despite cheap gas, various consumer misconceptions or indifference, PEVs are otherwise on the rise, presently with 0.78 percent market share as hybrids are down from peak years.
Coincidentally, this 0.78 exactly equals the market share held by high-efficiency diesels – with VW TDIs presently sidelined and counting a lions’ share from the light-duty Ram pickup (29,655), and Ford Transit van (31,435).
As more automakers turn to plug-ins, hybrids also will have a place, but PEV’s market share is due to go beyond the 1 percent of diesels in the VW-dominated heyday up through September 2015 when emissions cheating news broke.
Next on the target is hybrids hovering near 2 percent of the market. The leading PEV models mentioned carry an outsized proportion, as has been the case for several leading hybrids.
With new models like the Chevy Bolt, Tesla Model 3, next Nissan Leaf, and numerous others pending, PEVs could before we know it surpass hybrid market share altogether, but what the future really holds, no one actually knows.