If last month's U.S. plug-in electric car sales figures could be characterized as "March Madness" -- Leaf sales tripled, Tesla took the Q1 sales crown, but the Mitsubishi i-MiEV was down 90 percent -- the Canadian market was one of "March Modestness". 

Sales were up, and there were a few surprises, but the electric vehicle market remains low-key.

Co-champions

Both the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt sold 82 units in Canada in March, sharing the title of the country's best-selling plug-in car for the month.

While this represents the Volt's 13th straight month at (or sharing) pole position, and sales rose healthily from February (51), the two-time Consumer Reports highest-owner-satisfaction survey winner suffered its first month of lower year-over-year sales (March 2012: 116).

The Volt's slowing momentum isn't limited to Canada, either, as March also marked the first month of lower year-over-year sales in the United States (1478 vs. 2289). That said, March 2012 had been a particularly good month for the Volt in both countries, coming on the heels of unusually low Jan/Feb 2012 sales. 

Chevrolet Volt Versus Nissan Leaf

Chevrolet Volt Versus Nissan Leaf

NHTSA investigation and political circus, anyone?  Or maybe California inventory was low? It should also be noted that Chevrolet could also boost sales through dealer incentives or favorable financing, if it so chose.

Dealer incentives may well explain the Nissan Leaf's best-ever monthly sales total north of the 49th parallel, as Nissan Canada continues clearing out 2012 Leaf inventory prior to the 2013 model year's arrival later this spring.

The 82 units more than doubles February's 37 sales, and quadruples the year-over-year numbers (March 2012: 20).  The Leaf's prior monthly sales record had been set in December 2011 (59).

Given the likely contribution of incentives in March, one might expect Leaf demand to moderate in the coming months, ceding the top spot again to the Volt.  (Mind you, someone didn't expect anyone to seriously challenge the Volt's Canadian sales title this month, either!)

Runners-up

The Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid continued its slow, steady (and slim) sales pace in Canada, moving 28 units in March, slightly ahead of February (25). 

Although the 2013 models have arrived, as of early April, Toyota Canada's website still featured non-discounted pricing for the 2012 vehicle.  While dealership incentives are probably in place, this signals that the Prius Plug-in is a low priority in the country Volvo has taken to calling "Candanavia".

Toyota's apparent ambivalence towards the Canadian electric vehicle market is probably best illustrated by the fact that in the seven months since its introduction, 149 Prius Plug-in Hybrids have been sold in the country -- Chevy sold 143 Volts in its first month of availability, alone.  [Full disclosure: one of those Prius Plug-ins is the author's.]

2011 Nissan Leaf and 2011 Chevy Volt, with charging station visible; photo by George Parrott

2011 Nissan Leaf and 2011 Chevy Volt, with charging station visible; photo by George Parrott

Toyota was lucky to have improved on its February figures, as the Mitsubishi i-MiEV tied its all-time best Canadian monthly sales total of 26 (also achieved in May 2012) but had to settle for fourth place, among reporting automakers. 

This was quite the turnaround, the i-MiEV having put in its two worst-ever Canadian sales months in January and February.  Indeed, Mitsubishi sold almost as many i-MiEV's in Canada last month, as in America (31).

Overall Canadian plug-in electric car market

Paced by the Volt and Leaf, Canadian plug-in electric car sales for those four automakers in March nearly doubled the February levels (218 vs. 118) and improved on a year-over-year basis, as well (March 2012: 150). 

While this is progress, we need to note that in Canada, March generally enjoys a 50 percent bump in auto sales over February, and this year was no exception.  A similar but smaller trend is seen in the United States, with February-to-March sales typically jumping 20-25 percent.

2012 Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid - production model

2012 Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid - production model

Reported plug-in sales volumes represented 0.14 percent of the Canadian market in March, their third-best showing behind May and September 2012, both of which featured 200+ Chevy Volt sales -- showing the Volt's potential (if you'll excuse the pun) if the company were to pursue sales aggressively.

While this represented a healthy year-over-year improvement from March 2012 (0.09 percent), Canadians still face a long road ahead to catch up to their American cousins in electric vehicle adoption. 

Plug-in electric cars from reporting automakers represented about 0.25 percent of the American market in March 2013.  Add plausible Tesla sales of 2,000 vehicles, and plug-in market share in the United States approaches 0.40 percent -- almost triple the Canadian level.

Matthew Klippenstein is a professional engineer and plug-in electric vehicle enthusiast.  A member of the Vancouver Electric Vehicle Association, he lives with his family in the nearby suburb of Burnaby, and blogs at www.eclecticlip.com.

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