Electric Car Sales? Doing Better Than The Prius Was, Thank You

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Graph shows electric car sales beating early Prius sales (excerpt)

Graph shows electric car sales beating early Prius sales (excerpt)

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Hybrids still sell in fairly small proportions compared to regular internal combustion vehicles.

Their introduction can be judged a fair success though. The Toyota Prius is California's top selling car, and Toyota has sold over 4 million hybrids since the first Prius rolled off the line little more than a decade ago.

Think electric cars are selling poorly? In comparison, at the moment, they are--but look back to those early years of the Prius and the sales numbers tell a very different story.

Scientific American has looked at the early sales figures for the Toyota Prius, launched in 1997, and lined them up alongside recent plug-in vehicles: The Mitsubishi i-MiEV launched in 2009, the 2010's Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf, and 2012's Toyota Prius Plug-In.

Their graph shows the relative sales over the first 36 months of worldwide sales for each vehicle (or fewer, for those cars not yet on sale for that long).

Plug-ins beating Prius

While the Mitsubishi's sales have been outpaced by historical Prius data and the Chevy Volt got off to a slow start in its first year or so, those disruptive plug-ins have all been more successful in their first few years than the Prius ever was.

Nissan's Leaf got off to the best start, with over 2,500 sales in its second month--compared to little more than 500 cars in the Prius's second month on sale. While Leaf sales have subsequently been relatively modest, the early Prius only beats it over a handful of months in the first two years.

The Volt has been the electric car segment's relative success story. It took 14 months for it to outpace the Prius, but its second year on sale has seen sales far higher than those witnessed by the Prius in year 2.

The odd one out is clearly the Prius Plug-In. Launched only last year and now into its 12th month on sale, its sales have benefitted from the last 15 years of regular Prius sales.

2013 Nissan Leaf

2013 Nissan Leaf

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Patience is a virtue

That plug-in sales are currently low is less a reflection that they're unsuccessful--something that cannot be said of today's Prius, despite its early years--and more that the market is still young.

Like any genuinely new or disruptive technology, current electric vehicles are largely the preserve of the early adopters.

Technologically, they're far better cars than early hybrids--but they're equally as new, strange and scary to consumers, something reflected in low sales. At the same time, a general increase in education towards alt-fuel vehicles, plus considerably higher gas prices and environmental awareness than customers 15 years ago, has seen them outpace a car we now know has been a success--the Prius.

Existing electric cars aren't perfect for everyone just yet, and they probably never will be. There's not a Prius on every driveway, and it's been around for years.

But give current plug-ins another five or ten years on the market, and re-assess the situation. Sales already tripled in 2012, compared to 2011.

Looking back, we may all be wondering what today's "low sales" fuss is about...


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Comments (11)
  1. Who decided to post that graph without legend or axes? My 10th grade chemistry teacher would like to have a word with you.

  2. Hi Tom, thanks for your comment.

    The graph is lacking in any usable axes or labeling as we've only used a small excerpt from the full graph, available via the Scientific American source we linked to. We neither created nor own the full graph, so the one you see above is purely illustrative.

  3. (Though the image caption is a little misleading, for which I apologize)

  4. I found the link to your source buried in the article. That link should be in the caption for the graph to be properly cited.

  5. If by "buried" you mean clearly marked in the fourth paragraph, then yes it was. Since our captions don't hyperlink, it would be of little benefit putting the URL in there.

  6. If property rights don't allow GCR to show the full graph, I humble suggest you replace the graphic with something else.

  7. I can appreciate this John, but it's merely an illustration. We generally expect our readers will read the articles themselves, even if there's a pretty picture nearby. If they'd like to know more, we always include a handy hyperlinked note of our source.

    If you have any comments on the actual content itself, I'd be interested to hear them.

  8. For the sake of efficiency, Prius's original sales were almost all "conquest" sales from traditional ICE car buyers. That probably laid a better foundation for fuel savings than the current plugins.

    Today's Plugin sales aren't all "conquest" sales. Many of the Volt buyers trade-in their Prius, Civic Hybrid. Many if NOT most of the Prius Plugin buyers are all former Prius buyers/owners. Similar stories hold for the Leaf. Sure those plugins are more efficiency than those hybrids, but the saving is relative small comparing to the plugin vs. gas guzzler. We need more gas guzzlers convert to plugins...

  9. "Technologically, they're far better cars than early hybrids--but they're equally as new, strange and scary to consumers, something reflected in low sales."
    -- I expect that dumb opinion from an ignorant commenter but not from the author of an article. You cite none n have no evidence that plug ins are "strange n scary to consumers." You could have at least put in the word "some" before consumers to actually have some relevance but u didn't....dumb.

    "Existing electric cars aren't perfect for everyone just yet, and they probably never will be."
    Really? Never? You should know that use of the word never should be very limited. Plus its short sighted n again "dumb". Fossil fuels will be dried up mid century.

    EVs only by 2100!

  10. We've been saying this for a long time. Considering the economic quagmire, electric cars and plug-in hybrids have done very well, better then the introduction of hybrids over a decade under a more ideal economy. The problem was when carmakers decided to through out numbers based on pre-2008 intoxicated days and could not meet them this past year.

  11. Finally someone got the interpretation of EV sales right.

    I've been wondering for at least a year where those 'EV sales are disappointing' and 'electric cars have failed, again' articles came from. There is probably a lot of herd mentality in the car press.

    These car journalists forget about the three core wisdoms:
    - Understand exponential growth.
    - There is only a limited number of early adopters in the world.
    - Cars are not cell phones.

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