2013 Chevrolet Volt - Driven, December 2012

2013 Chevrolet Volt - Driven, December 2012

Most Canadians will remember last month for the introduction of the country's new $5 and $10 bills, which arrived just in time for the playoff-hockey betting season.

Canadian electric vehicle enthusiasts may remember April 2013, on the other hand, as the month the Toyota Prius Plug-in fell into fourth place among the country's plug-ins. 

But before we ponder sinking sales fortunes, let's celebrate the podium-holders (among the carmakers who release monthly sales data).

Chevy Volt: 14 months and counting

After sharing the plug-in sales championship with the Nissan Leaf (82 units) last month, the Chevy Volt outpaced its rival in April, with 64 vehicles sold.  Still, April marked the second consecutive month that its sales were down year-over-year (April 2012: 76 units).

May will probably continue that trend, as May 2012 saw the Volt rack up an impressive (by Canadian standards) 211 sales, representing 80 percent of the country's plug-in electric vehicle market that month.

Nissan Leaf: always a bridesmaid

While the Nissan Leaf was the second-best selling car of any kind in Norway in April, in Canada it had to settle for the more modest title of second-best selling plug-in car, with 48 sales. 

While this was a drop from March's Volt-tying levels, April represents the third month in a row that sales had roughly doubled year-ago levels.  (April 2012: 26 units)

i-MiEV, then Prius Plug-in

The Mitsubishi i-MiEV rolled back into third place in April, selling 24 units across the Great White North, essentially level with month-ago (26) and year-ago (22) levels. 

In doing so, it nipped past the Prius Plug-in, whose 22 units were the lowest this calendar year.  And the Prius Plug-in's sales torpor is North America-wide.

One wonders if Toyota is suffering the problem with the plug-in Prius that its competitors did in selling hybrids: Do early adopters prefer vehicles built on dedicated platforms, with distinctive silhouettes to make it clear to onlookers that the owners are, well, early adopters?

2012 Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid, Catskill Mountains, NY, Oct 2012

2012 Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid, Catskill Mountains, NY, Oct 2012

Among plug-in electric cars, three-quarters of U.S. electric vehicle sales come from dedicated plug-in platforms (Volt, Leaf, and Tesla Model S). 

In the United States, in recent months the Prius Plug-in, Ford Fusion and C-Max Energi, Focus Electric, and Honda Accord PHEV -- all based on existing, non-electric vehicle platforms -- seem to be splitting a shrinking slice of the pie.

Canadian plug-in sales stalling?

Not including Tesla, plug-ins comprised about 0.4 percent of the American new car market in April.  Adding our best Tesla sales estimates -- and assuming virtually all Tesla volume remains in the U.S.-- this figure pushes above 0.55 percent.

Unfortunately, April plug-in sales fell to 0.09 percent of the Canadian new car market, a nine-month low.  This might be statistical noise, as combining April numbers with higher March figures (0.14 percent) gives a two-month average of 0.11 percent, in line with the trend of the past six months.

But this is only modest progress over the 0.09 percent for the same period last year.

A plausible reason that the Canadian plug-in market has enjoyed only modest growth is that there is no Federal incentive for purchase of an electric car -- not a surprise, given the federal government's bitumen focus. In contrast, the U.S. market for such cars tripled last year, assisted by a Federal income-tax credit of up to $7,500.

Still, the three most populous Canadian provinces of OntarioQuebec and British Columbia are maintaining their rebate programs.  The lesser growth in the Canadian plug-in market therefore remains to be explained.

Given that the francophone province represented half of the Canadian plug-in market in 2012, the end of incentives would be expected to cause a noticeable drag on the Canadian plug-in market. And that's exactly what we're seeing.

EDITOR'S NOTE: A previous version of this commentary incorrectly stated that the Quebec incentive program for plug-ins had expired; in fact, it was the incentive program for hybrids that had expired.  A hat-tip and thank-you to Ricardo Borba for the correction.

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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