Plug-In Electric Car Sales Triple In 2012 As Buyers, Models Increase

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2011 Chevrolet Volt plugged into Coulomb Technologies 240V wall charging unit

2011 Chevrolet Volt plugged into Coulomb Technologies 240V wall charging unit

U.S. car buyers took home about 17,500 plug-in electric cars in 2011.

Last year, the numbers got better.

A lot better.

In 2012, about 53,000 electric cars were likely sold--essentially triple the prior year's number.

Not bad, huh?

We know that at least 50,000 sales of plug-in cars will have been reported by Chevrolet, Ford, Honda, Nissan, and Toyota.

We don't have final sales figures from Tesla, and won't until Tesla Motors [NSDQ:TSLA] releases its fourth-quarter financial results, most likely in early February.

We also don't have data on electric-car sales from Fisker, Coda, or Wheego.

But here's what we do have data on.

Chevrolet Volt

Hands down, the Volt has become the most popular plug-in electric car in the U.S.

Despite hostility to the car among certain sectors of the media, the Volt's shaky start in 2011 has solidified into a sales lead for the range-extended electric car.

In December, Chevy sold 2,633 Volts, bringing its year's total to 23,461. That's three times the 7,671 sold in 2011, and it locks the Volt into the leading position among all plug-in cars on sale in the U.S.

Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid

It didn't go on sale until February last year, but it logged steady sales and surged past the Nissan Leaf to become the second most-popular plug-in car on the market.

Last month, Toyota sold 1,361 plug-in Priuses, making the 2012 total a remarkable 12,750 units altogether.

Despite an EPA-rated electric range of 6 miles continuous and only 11 miles in total--the lowest of any plug-in car on the market--the plug-in Prius benefits from the reputation for reliability and excellent fuel economy of the entire Prius hybrid range.

It's also eligible for a "green sticker" permit that allows it to use High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes on California freeways with just one occupant. That's a huge sales incentive.

And the Prius Plug-In Hybrid also has the highest fuel economy (50 mpg) of any plug-in hybrid when operating in its pure hybrid mode after the battery pack is discharged.

Nissan Leaf

It was the very first modern plug-in car aside from the Tesla Roadster to go on sale in the U.S. But after racking up 9,674 sales in 2011, the Leaf battery-electric car stumbled last year.

Following a trend that started in October, December sales stayed strong, at 1,489 units, for a 2012 total of 9,819 Leafs sold--just squeaking past the 2011 total.

That lost the Leaf its 2011 sales lead last year, as it plummeted to third place in plug-in purchases.

With less controversy around the Volt, the new availability of a Prius with a plug, cautious buyers may have preferred those two cars' lack of susceptibility to range anxiety versus the Leaf's rated 73-mile electric range.

Issues around loss of battery capacity among some Phoenix owners didn't help either.

Fords with plugs

While the Ford Focus Electric has technically been on sale since December 2011, its numbers are nothing for Ford to brag about.

Ford won't release sales data til tomorrow, but through November, only 518 of the battery electric conversion were delivered in 2012.

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