New-car sales overall weren't great in August. The economy continues to be shaky, consumer confidence is down, and Hurricane Irene kept buyers away from dealerships.

But electric-car sales last month improved on July's numbers, although they were far from their spring heights due to continued constraints on the supply of Chevy Volts.

Leaf and Volt both up

The Nissan Leaf racked up another 1,362 sales (an improvement over July's 931), which brings the Leaf's 2011 total to 6,168 (plus another 19 sold in December 2010, the month when Nissan delivered its first 2011 Leaf).

The Leaf is thus trending at roughly 1,000 per month, which will put Nissan on track to achieve its post-tsunami goal of about 12,000 Leafs delivered in the U.S. this year.

The Chevrolet Volt extended-range electric car continued at a low level. It more than doubled its July sales low of just 125 sales, with 302 deliveries in August, but didn't come close to crossing the Leaf's 1,000 benchmark.

GM expects Volt sales numbers to rise sharply during the last four months of the year, as the dealer pipeline starts to refill with 2012 Volt models, which are now rolling off the lines at a rate of 150 per day.

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

The low sales months are due to a four-week July shutdown of the Detroit-Hamtramck plant where the Volt is assembled. The retooling that resulted should allow Chevy to build as many as 5,000 Volts per month.

The August numbers brings the Volt total to 3,172 for the year, plus 326 more last December, when the first Volt was also delivered.

It's about the supply, stupid

As we've noted several times (here and here, for instance), it's not lack of demand for Volts and Leafs that are keeping their sales low. It's lack of supply.

(So don't believe everything you hear about how "electric cars are a FAILURE !!!" in, ahem, certain portions of the media.)

Nissan can only build 50,000 Leafs this year and next, and that's the supply for the entire world--not only the U.S. (and now Canada) but also Japan, the rest of Asia, and Europe. And that's before the devastating impact of the earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan in February.

Chevy plans to build up to 60,000 Volts and Opel/Vauxhall Amperas next year, up from a maximum capacity of 16,000 this year.

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

Lengthy waiting lists

Both cars have lengthy waiting lists, and at the moment, neither car is available throughout the U.S. Chevrolet says the Volt will be available--at selected dealers--throughout the country by the end of this year; Nissan says the Leaf will be available nationwide by the end of next year.

Critics note that hundreds of Volts are listed as available at dealers, which may be true. Some of those dealers, however, are price-gouging: tacking hundreds or thousands of extra dollars onto the sticker price of those cars, which buyers are--naturally--resisting.

Fisker, finally? Not so much

Another company, Fisker Motors, didn't make it onto the electric-car sales roster this month. It should have logged a dozen or more sales of its Karma range-extended electric sports sedan.

The first Fisker Karma deliveries came last month--to actor and environmental advocate Leonardo DiCaprio and noted venture capitalist Ray Lane, chairman of Fisker's board--but the company had to wait for full regulatory approvals before logging those cars as sales.

It is still waiting.

Small numbers of plug-in vehicles from Tesla, Think, and Wheego may also have been sold; none of those makers reports monthly sales, as do conventional car companies.

Next month, it is likely that aggregate 2011 U.S. sales of plug-in cars will exceed 10,000. That's almost surely more than the combined sales of all plug-ins over the 80 years from 1931 through 2010.

And it will likely be just the beginning.


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