Electric Car Sales For 2011: Modest First-Year Numbers Hardly A Surprise

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2012 Ford Focus Electric

2012 Ford Focus Electric

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Last year, the electric-car revolution became real.

After a late-Nineties false start, much gnashing of teeth, and years of promises, carmakers delivered more than 17,000 plug-in vehicles in the U.S. market during 2011.

December sales numbers are being announced today. The relevant figures: Nissan sold 954 Leafs, for a 2011 total of 9,674, and Chevy shifted 1,529 Volts, bring its yearly deliveries to 7,671. (There were also 326 Volts and 18 28 Leafs sold in December 2010.)

One little piece of context: Both the Leaf and the Volt sold more in 2011, their first year in the market, than did the 2000 Toyota Prius--which sold 5,562--or the very first hybrid in the market, the Honda Insight, which sold 3,788.

UPDATE: We heard back from both Mitsubishi and Ford, and have updated the two paragraphs below accordingly.

Mitsubishi, which delivered its first 2012 'i' battery-electric minicar to City CarShare in San Francisco and some more in Hawaii, sold 76 'i' models in December and actually delivered an additional 4 at the very end of November.

Ford sold precisely 8 of its 2012 Focus Electric compact hatchbacks. That's 8 battery electric versions out of a total of 14,281 Focus models sold in December. (The first Focus Electric was delivered to Google, it turns out.)

Mitsubishi i Delivery in Hawaii

Mitsubishi i Delivery in Hawaii

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We presume more Tesla Roadsters were also sold--annoyingly, Tesla Motors [NSDQ:TSLA] refuses to release monthly sales figures as real carmakers do--as the last of that groundbreaking model is built and sent to Tesla Stores around the globe. 

Fisker Automotive may or may not have delivered a few dozen Karmas to retail buyers; the company did not respond to our inquiries for this article. Fisker hasn't been helped by an early recall of 239 cars to fix a potentially misaligned hose in the lithium-ion battery packs to avert the risk of Volt-like pack fires.

While Nissan's $1.4 billion in U.S. Department of Energy low-interest loans seems to have escaped the wrath of angry talk-show hosts and certain media outlets, Chevy's Volt was not so lucky.

The year brought repeated claims that the Volt was a "sales failure" and a disaster in many other ways--not helped by fires in lithium-ion battery packs from Volts that had been sitting after they were destroyed in severe crash testing.

While some of criticism was misinformed at best, it remains to be seen if the attacks have any long-lasting effect.

2012 Chevrolet Volt

2012 Chevrolet Volt

Enlarge Photo

But let's sit back and look at that number of 17,000 plug-in cars for a minute. It's almost three times as many plug-ins as were sold in total by Toyota, Honda, Ford, General Motors, and others during California's zero-emission vehicle requirement phase in the late Nineties and early 2000s.

And globally, more than double that number have been sold, with the Nissan Leaf and the Mitsubishi i-MiEV (as the 2012 Mitsubshi 'i' is known outside North America) as the top two plug-in vehicles.

Every major global automaker is now at least testing plug-in cars, and this year and next we'll see major rollouts from Nissan, Ford, Volkswagen, Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and even Toyota.

So here's your takeaway from the 2011 plug-in sales figures: It's started. It's going to be slow, and the cars cost more than gasoline cars of similar performance. Plug-ins may not reach even 1 percent of global production (or 1 million vehicles of 100 million built worldwide) until the end of the decade.

But they're here to stay.

Mark our words: This time ... it's real.


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Comments (11)
  1. Cumulative sales of the Volt reached 7,997 since December 2010, and Leaf cumulative sales almost 9,700. Just for the sake of accuracy. Last month you reported that 18 Leafs were delivered in December 2010 (http://www.greencarreports.com/news/1070075_november-plug-in-car-sales-volt-sparks-leafs-fall) and HybridCars.com reported 19. Now you are reporting 28? Can you check which one is the right figure.

  2. Good catch, and thanks for pointing that out. We've fixed the article to reflect the correct 2010 Leaf sales number: 18.

  3. (Pure typo on my part, sorry about that!)

  4. Sorry for being picky. Nissan reported 19 units sold in December 2010 (see here http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/nissan-north-america-sales-rise-277-in-december-18-for-year-112884304.html). Then cumulative sales in the US since December 2010 reached 9,693 units. Not bad for the first year.

    If sales of the Karma (~40), Tesla Roadster, Th!nk (until mid 2011) and Smart ED (+200) are considered, the total number of PEVs is close to 18,000 since Dec 2010, not bad for the first year in the market.

  5. "But they're here to stay.

    Mark our words: This time ... it's real."

    A-men, brotha! It's amazing, if you look at the headlines, the only thing you'll see is "misses sales goal" or "fire investigation." No headlines ever tout increasing sales month over month.

  6. I wish I could be so optimistic. I am amazed at how successful the anti-GM Volt bashers have been. 1529 Volt sales is nothing short of a disaster. The Hamtramck factory could produce 10 times that many. Most employees must be sitting around twiddling their thumbs. GM cannot keep a large factory running at a significant loss. Either there has to be an astounding turn-around of sales for the Volt or GM will be forced to shut down the project.

    The best product GM ever turned out, being destroyed by GM haters. I never thought they would win the day.

  7. Roy, exactly how many Volts did you think GM planned to sell annually? It's not a Malibu/Impala volume vehicle, hence the estimated 10k sales for 2011 and 45k in 2012. GM couldn't get 200k battery packs from the supplier now even if it could sell the cars, so your comment about GM needing to end production due to the low volumes simply isn't accurate at all.

    The Volt also isn't the only vehicle to be made in the plant. The Malibu will also be made there and will be the main product, not the Volt. Nobody will be sitting around...

    It's intended as a low-volume niche vehicle and loses money, so why would huge volumes be a good thing, again?

    As many here note, think long term and the Volt is just one more cog. A step forward, like others.

  8. Thanks for adding the context here.

    Sales are better than the Prius at the start of its life. Sales are better than the 1990's CARB EV event. Sales are very small compared with overall cars sales.

    Seems about right. Not a disaster, Not an overnight success. 2012 will be very informative.

  9. Want to sell in volume.... Cut the price in half and they will fly off the lots. Until then let the yuppies with disposable income enjoy.

  10. I'm a big electric car fan, but at current battery prices, there is no "electric car revolution" going on, nor can there ever be one, given under $10 gasoline. 17,000 cars, total, isn't generally enough to keep one single model in production. The US alone sells more than 15 million cars in a bad year. Sell 5 million electrics and you can start talking "revolution." Making statements like these simply gives anti-EV opponents plenty of opportunity to make fun of "those nutty electric car folks."

  11. Just wait until Tesla starts selling its Model S and you will see that they are for real. No little under perfoming electric golf cart here. The Leaf, although very nice as an EV has range issues at 75-90 miles so it is a pretty much going to be an urban commuter car until Nissan can improve its range. The Volt is a real nice yet practical car that officially goes about 40 miles on pure electric then the gasoline range extending engine kicks in. Right now until the Tesla Model S is released I say that the Volt is the most practical of the Pure EV or EV/range extended models being sold now. EV sales will get better once better preforming better range EV's reach the market.

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