The big news in plug-in car sales for March was Tesla's statement that it delivered "more than 4,750" Model S electric cars from January through March.
That news early Monday not only sent stock in Tesla Motors [NSDQ:TSLA] soaring, it also cued up an interesting three-way horse race.
Those sales put the Model S on a par with the Volt, ahead of the Leaf, and add roughly another third or so to the total number of plug-in cars from established makers that were delivered for the quarter.
Would Chevrolet manage to deliver more than 2,000 Volt range-extended electric cars to outsell the Model S?
And how quickly would sales of the 2013 Nissan Leaf rise now that cars are flowing freely from the Tennessee assembly line where they're now built?
CEO Ghosn promises Leaf sales
Last month, while Volt sales recovered, Leaf deliveries were hampered by low inventory.
With production of the U.S.-built 2013 Nissan Leaf ramping up at Nissan's Smyrna, Tennessee, assembly plant, supplies were low for the first two months of the year.
But at a press roundtable at the New York Auto Show last Wednesday, Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn said that the company expected to deliver around 1,900 Leafs during March.
The actual number turned out to be 2,236--higher than Ghosn's no-doubt lowballed estimate--bringing the Leaf's quarterly total to 3,539. Not at Tesla levels, but by far the Leaf's best-ever monthly total.
Ghosn went on to say that a level of around 2,000 monthly sales was NOT where Nissan expected to settle--implying that higher volumes were in the cards for the rest of the year. We hope Nissan's U.S. sales staff is listening to their boss.
Volt gets close--but not close enough
As it turned out, Chevrolet delivered 1,478 Volts during March, fewer than last month's 1,626.
That number brings first-quarter Volt totals to 4,244, decisively below the Tesla total.
While the Volt is still ahead of the Leaf for the first three months of the year--4,244 to 3,539--it was outsold in March by Nissan's battery electric car, for the first time since January 2012.
The third-place monthly ranking has got to be a blow for GM's electric-car team--although, in fairness, the price of the average Model S is likely twice that of the average Volt and Tesla has a backlog of eager customers who've waited up to three years to take delivery of their cars.
Plug-in hybrid models to come
In fourth place during the first quarter was the Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid, which outsold the Leaf through February to take a solid second place behind the Volt.
2012 Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid, Catskill Mountains, NY, Oct 2012
We said yesterday that if March sales tracked at their level during the first two months of the year, the Prius Plug-In would come in between 700 and 900 units.
And in fact, Toyota delivered 786 plug-in Priuses in March, for a first-quarter total of 2,353--bumping that car down to fourth place for the quarter, now that we have Tesla numbers.
As for Ford, it continues to increase sales of its Energi line, with 494 C-Max and 295 Fusion plug-in hybrids sold.
The Honda Accord Plug-In Hybrid appears to be on a slow upward trend. Just 19 were delivered in January and February combined, but March saw 26 sold--a far slower pace than the first months of the Ford C-Max Energi plug-in hybrid.
Compliance cars coming too
As for the battery-electric compliance car segment, deliveries of the Ford Focus Electric totaled 180 cars in March--its best-ever month, bringing total sales since December 2011 over the 1,000 mark for the first time.
(We're still waiting for Ford to address our questions about whether the Focus Electric actually is a compliance car, though its continuing pessimistic and downbeat predictions on the Focus Electric's sales potential may well be self-fulfilling.)
Remarkably, 133 Toyota RAV4 EVs were sold in March, by far the highest monthly number ever--bringing total sales since last September to more than 400, or one-quarter of the number Toyota needs to build.
Honda delivered 23 Fit EVs in March, equaling the previous two months' sales combined and bringing the lifetime total to 139.
Finally, as for the Mitsubishi i-MiEV, after a couple of months that totaled almost 600 sales, the littlest electric car on the market slumped back to its 2012 levels of 31 cars delivered.
The i-MiEV isn't a compliance car, but the March sales are at that level--and a disappointment to the hopes of those who like small, minimalist plug-ins.
2013 Tesla Model S electric sport sedan [photo by owner David Noland]
Next: Tesla Q1 sales call in May
Analysts will now be looking for comments from Tesla--which may not come until its Q1 earnings call in May--about the level of reservations for Model S.
Not all reservation-holders will convert into sales, but the rate at which the company can add new reservations versus starting to clear its queue of more than 10,000 Model S depositors will be keenly watched as an indicator of its ability to sustain sales beyond its first audience of early adopters.
Finally, one note on sales outside the U.S.: In its first full month of deliveries, 1,089 Renault Zoe all-electric subcompact hatchbacks were registered last month in France.
That number is fully 80 percent of plug-in electric car sales in the country for March.
French carmaker Renault is an alliance partner of Nissan, with the two companies together having delivered 70,000 battery-electric vehicles since December 2010.
The Zoe is its first high-volume battery electric vehicle, following the Kangoo ZE small electric delivery van and the low-volume Fluence ZE mid-size sedan with a swappable battery pack, designed for--and mostly sold to--the Israeli company Better Place.