Sales Show U.S. Drivers to Embrace Electric Vehicles

Consumers want hybrids that combine gas with battery power, like the Toyota Prius, or that plug in but have a backup gas tank, like the Chevrolet Volt.

That sentiment is reflected in the latest market numbers.

Sales of the all-electric Nissan Leaf, which can travel about 75 miles on a single overnight charge, plummeted 69% in June from a year earlier. Meanwhile, sales of various models of Toyota Prius hybrids are selling as fast as the automaker can ship them.

The Volt is still not an overwhelming success, but sales for the first half of 2012 more than tripled from a year ago to 8,817.

"I can’t grasp the concept of driving 20 or 30 miles, or whatever the range is on the car, and then having to plug in again," said Dennis Barrera, sales manager at Suburban Toyota in Troy, where the standard Prius hybrid is "still the most asked-about car (among shoppers) walking through the door."

Also factoring in are advances to the tried-and-true gasoline engine, increasing fuel efficiency often at a lower price than the electric alternatives.

Ask anyone who has replaced a 12-year-old pickup, or a 15-year-old SUV with a new version of the same general size. The new engine weighs less. The transmission has more speeds, enabling smoother shifting and wasting less gas.

Turbochargers and fuel injectors get more performance from every drop of petrol. For most people, especially when they’re paying less than $4 a gallon, that’s good enough.

2015 goal in doubt

President Barack Obama set a goal of getting 1 million plug-in hybrids and all-electrics on U.S. roads by 2015. The administration pumped billion of dollars in loans and grants into battery technology companies, but now, some of the recipients — including A123 Systems, with nearly 800 workers in Livonia and Romulus — are sitting on more capacity than the market wants.

Last week, Pike Research of Boulder, Colo., said the president’s 1 million plug-ins would not happen before 2018, if then.

"There is little evidence that any … breakthroughs will happen to any significant degree in the next five or six years," Pike Research said in the report. "Those betting on strong early growth curves hoped that battery prices would quickly fall, positive word of mouth would quickly spread or automakers would introduce new models more quickly."

Nissan’s cautionary tale

The Leaf is meeting strong resistance in the showroom.

Sales fell to 3,148 units for the first half of 2012, down from 3,875 a year earlier. In June, the decline accelerated, falling 69%, to 535.

Spokeswoman Katherine Zachary said Nissan is transitioning its Leaf sales model from a Web-based, build-to-order system "to more of a traditional dealer-based model."

"This transition is still in process in terms of establishing nationwide distribution, as well as more localized marketing efforts," Zachary said in an e-mail.

Nissan said supply constraints were a factor in Leaf’s anemic sales. Until now, all Leafs were imported from Japan. The company is building a new plant in Smyrna, Tenn., that will produce the electric car for the U.S. market when it opens in December.

IHS Automotive analyst Rebecca Lindland said many early adopters of technology like electric cars might have selected other vehicles.

"It’s trying to maintain that momentum with people that may not have considered the Leaf that becomes a challenge," she said.

The 2013 Volt’s battery allows the $40,000 car to travel up to 38 miles on a charge of electricity. But drivers don’t have to stop to recharge because the car’s gasoline engine kicks in after the battery is drained, giving the vehicle 380 miles in combined range. The Volt is gaining modest traction in California, where the low-emission version of the car recently qualified for access to high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) car-pool lanes. About 34% of General Motors’ Volt sales are in California, said Don Johnson, Chevrolet’s U.S. sales chief. But California dealers are getting only about 25% of GM’s Volt inventory, leading to shortages.

Other electric car sales

Sales of other electric vehicles can be registered in the dozens.

In June, consumers bought 89 Ford Focus Electrics, 127 Smart fortwo electric vehicles, 79 BMW Active Es and 33 Mitsubishi i’s, according to Toyota sold 695 plug-in versions of the Prius, which can travel about 15 miles on electricity before the gasoline engine starts running.

What these early bumps mean for Tesla Motors, the Silicon Valley maker of very expensive battery-powered cars, is not clear. Tesla, which assembles its cars in a former General Motors-Toyota joint venture factory in Fremont, Calif., is launching the Model S with an entry-level price of $57,400, up to more than $100,000.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk has said he will sell 5,000 cars this year and 20,000 in 2013.

Tesla spokeswoman Shanna Hendriks said that the Model S offers battery-range options of 160, 230 and 300 miles, which "puts electric vehicles into a place where range is not an issue for the average driver" — at least the average driver who can afford a $100,000 car.