Six years ago this week, a new era in transportation began with the launch of the Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf.

The East-versus-West cars represented two different approaches to offset petroleum consumption along with attendant tailpipe emissions by substituting lithium-ion batteries and electric motors to propel them.

The extended-range electric Volt with gasoline backup and all-electric Leaf were not the first plug-in electrified cars ever, but were the first by major global manufacturers in a new market which today has grown to over 60 models from numerous nameplates.

A couple years prior in 2008, Tesla had launched its proof-of-concept Roadster which eventually sold around 2,400 units into over 30 countries.

2013 Leaf.

2013 Leaf.

Other minor plug-ins had also been introduced including the Japanese Mitsubishi i-MiEV in 2009, but the Volt and Leaf are recognized as the progenitors in the then-leading U.S. market which drove the first wedge in the global move away from petroleum.

Slow Start

Of course if this was a “revolution” as the most optimistic advocates have been known to say, it began in slow motion as the two cars traipsed out of the starting gate in a staged U.S. rollout.

Our Jan. 2011 Dashboard records 321 units sold for the Volt and 87 for the Leaf with a market share of 0.05 percent.

2012 Volt.

2012 Volt.

Initial deliveries of pre-ordered Leafs were to Arizona, California, Hawaii, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas and Washington. Pre-ordered Volts were first sold in Washington D.C., the New York City region, California, and Austin, Texas.

Various markets followed and nationwide distribution was in place by November 2011 for Chevrolet and by March 2012 for Nissan.

Because of the novelty of the two cars, and who they were backed by, they garnered an outsized proportion of press coverage.

There also arose a bit of an undeclared race between the Japanese EV and American plug-in gas-electric car. Both launched the same month, and a tradition started of reporting their respective sales to see who was the ”winner” each month.

Leaf vs. Volt

The Volt and Leaf are each eligible for a $7,500 federal tax credit, state incentives on a case by case basis, and other global markets also incentivize them.

Out of the gate, the Leaf took an early sales lead, finishing 2011 with 9,674 sales to the Volt’s 7,671.


By 2012, Leaf sales had flattened with 9,819 sales next to the Volt’s 23,461 – the Volt’s best U.S. sales year on record so far.

In 2013, only 400 units separated the two, with the Leaf finishing with 22,610 units, versus 23,094 Volts sold.

By then, was tracking 14 plug-in electrified cars in the U.S. – today there are 28 – and the global markets were also expanding with eyes on many more vehicles than the two original cars in question.

That said, the Volt and Leaf have continued to do relatively well, with the Leaf ultimately outpacing the Volt so that today it has almost double the cumulative global sales.

Below are video reviews from 2013.

In fact, the Leaf is today the world’s leading plug-in car with more than 240,000 cumulative global sales out of about 1.9 million total.

The Volt, including 10,000 Opel/Vauxhall Amperas exported from the U.S. to Europe, is at about 130,500 cumulative units.

Basically, the Volt has sold best in the U.S., despite politics in 2011-2012 linking President Obama, the GM bailout, and other issues which pulled down its momentum.

In all, the U.S. has purchased 109,798 Volts through November 2016. Other top markets include Canada, which absorbed 8,612 through the same period, and through December 2015, the Netherlands took 6,000 Volts and Opel Amperas. Europe overall purchased 10,000 Amperas through June 2016.

As for the Leaf’s top markets: the U.S. has purchased 101,698 through November 2016, Japan through October 2016 took 70,346, Norway bought 19,150 through November – and more than 25,000 if counting used imports, and UK purchased 15,000 through September 2016.

Still Standouts

Despite a slew of plug-in cars that have come along, the Volt and Leaf have been unique in a number of ways.

All plug-in vehicles are built at least in part with regulatory compliance in mind, but several PEVs by other makers have been distributed more tepidly in just California and some or all markets that follow its zero emission rules.

The Leaf sold its first 100,000 units in January 2014, and the Volt did so in October 2015. The Leaf went on to sell 150,000 by November 2014 and 200,000 in December 2015.

The Leaf sold its first 100,000 units in January 2014, and the Volt did so in October 2015. The Leaf went on to sell 150,000 by November 2014 and 200,000 in December 2015.

The 50-state Volt and Leaf have thus remained competitive, a statement especially true of the Volt which saw a complete redesign in 2016, but even the 2011-2015 first-generation Volt is a relative standout.

That original car provided an EPA-rated 35-38 miles all-electric range and remains the EV-distance champ among “blended” plug-in hybrids that have come along in the U.S. and other markets.

Blended plug-in hybrids “blend” the gas and electric motor power for full acceleration, but the Volt is unique in that it can stay in EV mode without the gas engine turning on. Only the BMW i3 REx is similar in function, but that vehicle has limited gas range and power in extended-range mode, whereas the Volt has full power in hybrid or EV mode.


Out of 14 current full-range plug-in gas-electric cars, the 2011-2015 Volt’s range exceeds them all, and the 53-mile-range 2016/17 model is just that much further ahead. This is a huge advantage allowing the most drivers wanting to avoid petroleum usage day to day to do so.

Meanwhile the Leaf, which began with 73 miles range in 2011-2012, jumped to an effective 84 miles in 2013 and in 2016 came with 107 miles, and it has proven the right combo for more mainstream buyers than any other electric car.

With the 238-mile Chevy Bolt being launched this month nearly to coincide with the Volt’s anniversary, the Leaf will however be sent back to the drawing board, and its sales have tapered off markedly for over a year now.

The Volt has an EV sibling named the Bolt which aims to give the Leaf a jolt – until the Leaf is redesigned, anyway.

The Volt has an EV sibling named the Bolt which aims to give the Leaf a jolt – until the Leaf is redesigned, anyway.

Incidentally, another phenomenon in the plug-in world, Tesla’s Model S, is actually up there too, with 151,000 (7.9 percent of global total). It is doing quite well considering it launched later in June 2012, and costs 2-4 times as much as the Leaf or Volt.

Other cars in the global top five include the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV – about 116,500 units – and the Toyota Prius PHV – about 76,200.

But the Volt and Leaf have made their mark. Combined, the two represent nearly 20 percent of all plug-in car sales to date.

Where Things Stand

The Volt was designed as a bridge toward all-electric tech, but the case for it remains even with new sub-$40,000 EVs with over 200 miles range in the wings. Because it can run as a pure EV for up to 53 rated miles, it effectively does what people buy EVs for, but with convenience of a hybrid powertrain that still nets 42 mpg for longer trips and greater fueling convenience.

2017 Volt.

2017 Volt.

Notable however is GM has resisted ever making mainstream-priced spinoffs despite showing a crossover concept in 2010, and hearing requests from Volt fans ever since. All it ever did was launch a Volt-based Cadillac ELR in 2014 and by 2016 that vehicle was canceled.

That said, the 2016 Volt was designed with a new drive unit that is more compatible with hybrid and plug-in hybrid spinoffs, so that prospect is still an open question with the secretive Detroit carmaker.

Nissan’s Leaf on the other hand has been a successful EV, but needed now is more range for the twice-refreshed first-generation car. It’s expected the Renault-Nissan Alliance will roll out generation two next year for model year 2018, and CEO Carlos Ghosn has said it will compete with the Bolt – if not also the Tesla Model 3, and at least three other 200-plus-mile EVs pending.


The plug-in market is otherwise in flux, and major automakers in Europe are now saying they will be selling 15-25 percent plug-ins by 2025. The Japanese also appear to be making moves toward plug-ins, and the U.S. and China also are still coming along.

Even just in recent months, automakers have indicated they more-clearly see the handwriting on the wall from tightening regulations – driven in no small part from concerns about climate change, and the 2015 Paris Accord’s urgent appeal.

And meanwhile the Volt and Leaf plug away. Given various uncertainties, cheap U.S. gas, and new models believed pending, the Volt this year has however only a chance to beat its 2012 sales record and the Leaf, as noted has seen sales decline.

That is just the short-term view however. The big picture is these vehicles plowed the way for others to follow while remaining relevant, and they stand to continue to be highly competitive for the foreseeable future.

Thanks to Mario R. Duran for help with data.