Nissan Doubles Leaf Sales, Volt Stays Steady: Some Perspective, Please

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John Duncan takes delivery of one of the first 2011 Nissan LEAF EVs, near Portland OR, 12/15/2010

John Duncan takes delivery of one of the first 2011 Nissan LEAF EVs, near Portland OR, 12/15/2010

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Sigh. Here we go again.

It's the first of the month, which means that auto journalists are scrambling to put together their monthly sales reports.

Sales in May weren't great, for a variety of reasons: higher prices and shortages of some Japanese models, among others.

Unusual scrutiny

But the most dismal part of the monthly process is watching the inordinate attention paid to sales of the two plug-in electric cars now available at U.S. dealerships.

Those are the 2011 Chevy Volt and the 2011 Nissan Leaf, and every month their sales have been followed with the kind of media scrutiny usually reserved for utterances by possible presidential candidate Sarah Palin (she of the anti-Subaru comments).

481 Volts, 1,142 Leafs

In May, Chevrolet sold 481 Volts, for a yearly total thus far of 2,184. That's right in line with the 493 it sold last month.

And Nissan sold 1,142 Leafs, for a 2011 total to date of 2,167 , its highest monthly total this year by far. So with five months in, the two makers are neck and neck on sales volume.

First 2011 Chevrolet Volt delivered to retail buyer Jeffrey Kaffee, in Denville, NJ, December 2010

First 2011 Chevrolet Volt delivered to retail buyer Jeffrey Kaffee, in Denville, NJ, December 2010

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Each manufacturer has challenges this year.

GM will shut down the Detroit-Hamtramck plant where the Volt is built for four weeks in July to retool it to build the 2013 Chevrolet Malibu, now that production of the Cadillac DTS and Buick Lucerne has ended.

And Nissan has been coping for the past few months with the devastating impact of the February earthquake and tsunami that devastated its home country and damaged the supply chain for all automakers, especially those in Japan.

Utter lack of context

What irks us above all is the lack of context on the part of political commentators--we won't dignify them by mentioning names--who have already pronounced the Volt and Leaf "sales failures" based on a few months' data.

Get it straight, guys: Chevy always said it would build 12,000 Volts in 2011, and they've just boosted that to 16,000 based on demand. Nissan planned to deliver 20,000 Leafs in the U.S. this year, and has waiting lists that stretch out for months.

They are still delivering demonstration cars to dealers, shaking down production, and otherwise doing what any sane maker does when it launches a new and important vehicle region by region. Especially one that requires more than average education on the part of the buyer.

In other words, it's a problem of supply, not demand. Got it?

Check back in two years...

In a couple of years, when Nissan can build several hundred thousand electric cars a year, then we'll see whether they all find buyers. Until then ... do your homework, hmmmmm?

There were also Volts and Leafs sold in December 2010, by the way, when each plug-in car first went on sale. On December 12, Nissan delivered its first 2011 Leaf, and just three days later that was followed by the first Volt.

For the record, plug-in vehicles are also sold in the U.S. by Fisker, Smart, Tesla, Think, and Wheego. But none of those companies release monthly sales reports. Their volumes are far lower than those for the Volt and Leaf.


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Comments (23)
  1. Thanks for some reasoned perspective on these numbers John. It annoys me every time I hear stories about consumers losing or gaining interest based on monthly sales numbers.

  2. The real test will be in 2013, when Nissan hopes to go mass-market (which can be defined as having a car available for a buyer to drive off in); a test both of Nissan, whether it can continue against Big Oil hatred, and a test of past history, which shows us that folks given a chance to drive a real EV for a while fall in love with them. The bet is whether this is a mass-phenomenon.

  3. Hard to find a more defensive viewpoint, outside of the PR dept over at GM. Is this what this website has become? An apologist and spinner of news that apparently has chosen Palin as their whipping boy?
    What's patheic is the defensive argument that "GM never planned to sell more than so-and-so Volts the first year."
    The point being avoided here is that the Volt isn't selling because it has nothing going for it and is being pushed by green car advocates only because it happens to use a battery in some driving situations.
    Crappy, cramped, slow, expensive and ugly cars simply don't sell. And having to fork over another $12K after 8 years when the battery dies doesn't say much for one's intelligence, economically speaking.

  4. Well, I for one am still waiting for either the Chevy Volt or Nissan LEAF to become available in my market.

    And as Voelcker rightly says, it is too early to call the game one way or the other. Check back in one year's time.

  5. Buddy, where do you get your info? Must be Faux news.

  6. Danny: Feel free to point out any factual inaccuracies. Happy to correct data or assertions I got wrong.

  7. Got to love Voelcker. Always takes the high road even when others (like me) are not.

  8. I would really love to see how the sales of these two vehicles fare against the wave of other incoming mainstream electric vehicles like the Mitsubishi i.

  9. I am with John Voelcker on this one. It is way too early to judge the success or failure of the Volt or LEAF. For heaven's sake, the vehicles have only been rolled out in 5 or 6 states yet. I can't buy either one in Massachusetts.

  10. Thank you for the fair and enlightening article. As you say it will take a couple of years before meaningful sales figures are available. By then we will have many more models to choose from and I believe there is a large pent-up demand, tempered by the financial reality of not being able to pay premium prices.

  11. @Kent. people is glass houses shouldn't be accusing others of bias, should they? Calling the author defensive for pointing out factual reason that sales are down (hint, it's still not the lack of demand, Kent, it's the lack of vehicles for sale/lease) is an approach based on your political beliefs, not reason.
    If you choose to ignore facts like GM shipping the Volt to dealers first or production shutting down for a month to re-tool the plant, then that says more about your rigid inflexibility than about anything else.
    At about $33k after tax credit, it's cheaper than my current car. Before that I had Camry and Maxima at $26k and $32k. I'd easily save more than the price delta, and unlike you, enjoy a car I've already driven.

  12. I understand it is early, but Edsel sold over 60,000 in its first year and we know how that turned out. These sales are horrible, even in its infancy. I think GM Management messed up in how they brought this car out. It is almost like they didn't want it to succeed. The gasoline version of the Volt, the Cruze, is selling like hotcakes. 22,000 last month and close to 100,000 for the year. Right now the Cruze may be the real reason the Volt is doing so horribly. GM actually makes money on the Cruze, think about it.

  13. I wonder if anyone considering buying the Volt has decided to buy a Cruze or vise-versa. I just don't hear of people doing that. People shopping for a Volt might get a LEAF or a Prius, but I rather doubt they would be interested in the Cruze.

  14. I tend to agree with that. And saying the Cruze is the "gasoline version of the Volt" is reductive in the extreme; they share some underbody structure and hidden components, but no body panels, precious little interior, and they're completely different packages.

  15. @Quincy, seriously, what part of the long-term production plans don't you get? Comparing the Volt to the Cruze is laughable. Do you think they come off the same line with the same components? GM is losing money on the Volt but it's pricesless in development terms. They're not going to sell 300k Volts, so the comparison is ridiculous.
    At both Johns, I disagree, the Cruze is exactly what people are shopping against. Almost every time I'm at the Chevy dealer checking on my Volt, shoppers are there complaining about the Volt price and discussing the Cruze instead. They do look similar. People interested in EVs may cross a LEAF, but the general public will cross reference the Cruze, especially GM long-term customers. Different market, of course

  16. In other words, people who would never buy a Volt, like to compare it to the Cruze. People that would actually buy a Volt, compare it to the LEAF.

  17. Well said, @John C Briggs. And, @Robok, part of the mission of the Volt is to bring in NEW customers who are NOT the "GM long-term customers" ... the ones who have no earthly idea where their local Chevy dealer is, because they've bought Asian or European cars exclusively because they were better built than the U.S. cars of the 1970s and 1980s, and they never went back. THOSE are the folks that can afford to buy Volts, and in some ways the most important customers for GM to attract.

  18. @John V. So, by that logic, the fact that GM has made the Volt into an aspirational car for those who haven't traditionally looked at GM means that people aren't cross-shopping the Cruze and Volt? Really? That must be why I keep hearing people comparing the two at the dealer next to the Volt? Or why forums on the Volt continually have numerous comments about the Volt not being worth $10-20k more than the Cruze?
    Again, the people here, myself included, simply aren't typical consumers. The average consumer will compare the Volt to a Cruze, Civic, Focus more often than a LEAF since very few consumers consider the LEAF to begin with. Early adopters here but most consumers are not.

  19. @Robok2,
    I appreciate the pushback, and understand where you are coming from. Personally I own a $13,000 Toyota Corolla and a $25,000 Toyota Prius. I know fully well, that the economic choice would have been to get a second $13,000 Toyota Corolla and not the Prius.

    However, that was never really an option. My wife wouldn't drive a low end vehicle. So it was either a Sienna or a Prius. The Prius was actually less expensive and more than acceptable to my wife.

    You can see that behavior described in this report
    which describes that for most Prius buyers, the Prius was the cheaper alternative.
    John C. Briggs

  20. @John B. Good points. Right now, I'm likely to get a Volt or a LEAF but depending on when they are available to me, it could become a Focus Electric or other EV, too. My only point is you, John V. and I simply aren't typical automotive customers and that people w/ our interests may compare a Volt and a LEAF, for 95% of consumers, it'll be hybrids and EVs compared to high-mileage standard ICE vehicles.
    Like most of us here, I look forward to having more options in the market. I think Doug K. below had some good comments, too.
    Finally taking the Volt for a test drive this week. I've been in one with a GM engineer who was commuting in it, but it's finally in at the dealer.

  21. I guess I am not too worried about the "average consumer's" opinion at this time. The average consumer will need to see his neighbor driving an EV for years before he will consider it viable.

    If gasoline hits $6/gallon, people will be more receptive to the idea of EV and more willing to listen.

    When I bought the Prius in 2006, friends and family basically said I was stupid. However, when gasoline started reaching $4/gallon, those very same people came back to me with curiosity and interest about the Prius and how it worked. These things take time and while most of my friends and family have not bought a hybrid, they do accept it as a viable alternative.

  22. I've seen comparisons of the Leaf to a Versa. They are not the same car--Versa is a$10Kish car plus some options, Leaf is a $20K car with a lot of standard high end equipment, roomier and a $12K battery pack. It comes down to whether people want to spend $20K on gas over 8 years or spend $12K or less on a new battery pack in 8 years.

    The Leaf is a historical vehicle due to being the first mass produced EV. A Versa is nothing worth remembering.

  23. Though Volt has its good reason for us to buy it we must be also aware that its not all about the battery.But we have to consider also the safety.In fact,a Chevrolet Volt that was used in federal crash testing recently ignited a couple weeks after the test was administered. The security issue likely concerns the battery packs and a safety investigation into battery packs on the Volt and other cars is underway.The proof is here: Safety investigation into Chevy Volt fire under way

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