US Plug-in Vehicle Sales Surge in 2013

Three years after the December 2010 launch of the Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf, the U.S. plug-in hybrid and all-electric market has grown to 16 vehicles, including two new models just ramping up, and several more due later this year.

2013 saw sales rise to over 96,000, a number of milestones crossed, but compared to total U.S. passenger vehicle sales of 15.53 million, plug-in vehicles represent less than 1 percent.

Advocates nonetheless point to a solid foothold for a new type of transportation that relies on domestically sourced energy, has the lowest carbon footprint, and which may boast deceptively good ownership costs that belie their relatively steeper prices.

While electric cars were built in the late 1800s, and did see an era of growth for decades, conventional gas and diesel cars were almost solely relied upon for most of the 20 century and into this century.

Surveys show while consumers approve of the general technology, they have been tentative with their wallets, and many are unaware of or do not comprehend new technologies, or even the reasons behind them.

With these qualifiers in place, and with more to follow, we’ll attempt to put the relative progress in perspective.

Best Year Yet

Plug-in passenger vehicle sales volume grew from 53,172 units in 2012 to around 96,050 in 2013 (with Tesla and Fiat 500e being estimated). This growth follows just 17,813 plug-in vehicles sold in 2011 (not counting Tesla Roadsters, Mini Es, or commercial vehicles), and only 345 Chevy Volts and Nissan Leafs sold in 2010.

For 2013, the number of models grew from 11 plug-in cars listed on our December 2012 Dashboard – two of which, the BMW ActiveE and Smart forTwoEV – were off the market by December, so there were actually nine selling at year’s end.

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As of December 2013, among the 17 cars we’re presently listing, 16 are reported to be selling. The BMW ActiveE is not selling but carried forth for the record. A month ago, Porsche told us the Porsche Panamera S Plug-in E-Hybrid would start sales in January. However, reports are it is available, and Autodata lists 47 units delivered. As for the Cadillac ELR, it too was officially to go on sale in January, but dealers sold six in December.

Including honorable-mention, fleet-only VIA Motors’ van and pickup trucks, we’re looking forward to at least seven more plug-in vehicles this year. Other models due for 2014 are the Tesla Model X, BMW i3, Volkswagen e-Golf, Mercedes-Benz electric B-Class, and BMW i8.

Big and Little Fish

There remains a major imbalance between automakers actually contributing to the year-end tally, and those just along for the ride.

This year, the lion’s share of plug-in sales were tallied due to six bullish and determined automakers selling EVs or PHEVs in all 50 or at least several states.

The top-three leaders selling nationally are the extended-range Chevy Volt (23,094 sold) all-electric Nissan Leaf (22,610 sold), and all-electric Tesla Model S (18,650 estimated). The Toyota Prius plug-in hybrid (12,088 sold) has done remarkably well for being sold in only 15 states.

Of these, three had their prices cut this year, whereas Tesla raised its prices.

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The absolute top seller this year was the Volt, followed by the Leaf, and Model S – a near-anomaly considering the Model S may be specified to cost $71,000 to $133,000.

Ford’s Energi pair – the C-Max and Fusion plug-in hybrids – also did well (C-Max: 7,154; Fusion: 6,089) and these top-six carried the market this year.

The other 10 cars totaled around 6,400 sales, which just tops the 6,089 sales of the Fusion Energi, the lowest seller of the upper half dozen.

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The phenomenon of “compliance cars” thus continues with automakers dipping their toes into the plug-in waters, and most everyone talking up a big future.

A notable exception is Mitsubishi’s i-MiEV which is not a compliance car, but did not sell in high volume. This car too had its price seriously clipped in December, with the after-federal-subsidy price being $15,495, which makes it comparable to economical gas cars, and this EV gets 99 city, 126 highway miles per gallon equivalent (MPGe).

Highlights and Milestones

October 2013: 150,000 Plug-ins Sold Since 2008
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Counting the 1,800 or so Tesla Roadsters which launched the new wave of plug-in cars, and about 1,600 Fisker Karmas and 500 Mini Es, the total just squeezed past the 150,000 unit mark.

Not counting the GM EV1 launched in the later 90s, this is 150,000 cars of a type never before seen in America and certainly not in such numbers. Each one stands to begin changing attitudes and forming opinions.

50,000th Volt Sold

This milestone was crossed in October, making it the top-plug-in car sold, bar none. This might be called a bittersweet victory however in light of early projections GM made in 2011 that 2012 alone might see 45,000 Volts sold.

As of December, the Volt led the U.S. with 54,552 sold since launch.

40,000th Leaf Sold

Last month the Nissan Leaf crossed the 40,000 mark, and this is noteworthy especially since its 2013 sales more than doubled 2012’s. The present tally is 42,122 and Nissan has been consistently hovering around the 2,000 unit sales mark as it reports new hot spots such as Atlanta and elsewhere.

Globally, the Nissan Leaf is the top seller, with well over 90,000 units sold, according to Nissan’s Corporate Communications Manager, Travis Parman. The company hopes to cross the 100,000 global unit milestone mid to late this month.

19,000th Model S Sold*

* This may be closer to 19,500 or even over 20,000, that’s partly why an odd-rounded number gets a mention. Tesla does not report sales with monthly regularity but based on statements it has made, and analysts’ estimates, it is reasonably safe to say in December it sold its 19,000th U.S. Model S, as it is approaching 10-times the global volume of the proof-of-concept Roadster.

It is also possible that Tesla crossed the 25,000 global unit sales mark for Model S, accounting for sales in Canada and Europe.

Ford sells 10,000th PEV
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In August, Ford passed the 10,000 unit mark for all its plug-in electrified vehicles, including the Focus Electric (1,918), C-Max Energi (5,910), Fusion Energi (2,591).

Ford has been energetic in offering new hybrid and plug-in cars in the past couple of years, and is eagerly targeting Toyota as well as others in these growing segments.

Price Adjustments

This year saw significant price reductions for the Nissan Leaf, Chevy Volt, Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid, and Mitsibishi i-MiEV. Tesla raised Model S prices.

100,000 Mile Leaf

Just a couple weeks ago, Nissan reported a man in Kent, Washington had crossed 100,000 miles driven with his Leaf.

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Steve Marsh, a financial controller, said he went with the Leaf in large part because of the savings in using electricity over gas.

No adverse durability issues were reported with this Leaf, though in 2012 ones in hot states have seen premature battery failure at a marginally higher rate.

Caveats and Qualifiers

Beyond consumer caution for various reasons, and concerns over the value received, a few other issues have put a damper on plug-in vehicle sales. To add insight, we consulted analyst, Alan Baum, principle of the Michigan-based research firm, Baum & Associates.

Supply Constraints

The combined 2013 sales of the Volt, Leaf and Model S are just over 64,000 or two-thirds of the entire 96,000 sales this year.

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All three of these vehicles have suffered supply issues. Lower prices spurred demand for the Leaf and Volt, but Nissan had component shortages which have just been solved, said Baum. Also, Chevrolet’s Detroit-Hamtramck plant has had issues including planned downtime affecting Volt production.

Tesla is ambitiously attempting to market to now-global demand, and a completely new supply base and new production processes have limited supply of the Model S.

Hit-or-Miss Marketing

Automakers attempting to market new cars have been criticized for at times singing off key with their advertisements.

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It’s been a case of messages focused on environmental “goodness” mixed with vehicle capability, thriftiness, and let’s not forget the constant refrain of “fun to drive.”

Baum said the marketing messages have been “somewhat muddled,” thus confusing to customers.

Under-motivated Dealers

To be sure, some dealers are doing great, but others are not as enthusiastic about plug-in cars.

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Baum observes that selling plug-in vehicles takes more effort.

“Consumers must be qualified to ensure that their driving needs are a good match for the technology and the capabilities of the vehicle,” said Baum, noting also an installed home charging station often is a mandatory extra.

“The traditional dealer is generally not being compensated for this extra attention and time that is required, so many dealers may not be offering these vehicles to the extent of the marketplace,” said Baum of manufacturers other than Tesla which sells under a unique business model. “The automakers need to step up in order to assist their dealer network in this endeavor.”

Cheap(er) Gas

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In exchange for their higher sticker prices, although potentially subsidized on the federal and state level, buyers have wanted to see a clear payback in operational costs.

With gas hovering nationally below $3.50 per gallon, combined with extra perceived difficulties or risks incurred, plug-in cars are less than a no-brainer for some would-be consumers.

“While the operating cost of plug in vehicles is far below their gas powered counterparts, the justification is easier if gas prices are higher,” said Baum. “While there are many forecasts that say that gas prices will remain low, it remains our view that growth in world markets will lead to higher prices over time.”

Baum noted also that increasing fuel economy requirements will improve demand for plug in vehicles.

Onward We Go

The proverbial horses are out of the stable. After three years, you can call it a slower-than-expected start, or impressive, or somewhere in between. More sure is each new car delivered means a new personal testimonial within a consumer’s sphere of social influence.

Meanwhile we keep hearing rumblings of fuel cell vehicles coming online next year, and actually early pioneer Honda has been plugging away. After a several months of no sales, it reported four leased FCX Clarities in December.

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These all-electric vehicles are poised to also ramp up slowly, competing with other technologies for mindshare, and funds too, as society walks toward a future tinged with hopefulness and uncertainty as well.

Special thanks goes to Mario R. Duran for tracking market sales and assisting with research for this article.