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Electric vehicle sales ahead of last year’s pace

Despite GM’s decision to shut down Volt production for five weeks, starting later this month, capping a raft of adverse publicity, sales of electric vehicles are actually running well ahead of last year’s pace.

Sales of both the Volt and the Nissan Leaf both increased in February. Between them, GM and Nissan sold more than 1,500 battery-based vehicles during February, making it one of the best monthly sales totals ever for the emerging technology. Leaf sales increased 617 percent, year-over-year, while sales of the Volt increased 264 percent, according to the latest sales number from February.

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(Despite its recent problems, the Chevy plug-in also reported a 60 percent gain from January, when demand plunged as federal regulators probed potential problems with the Volt battery pack.)

EV sales are still running short of the targets set by Nissan and GM but are expanding and the combination of higher pump prices for gasoline and a stronger economy will lift EV sales, according to a number of industry analysts. In addition, more models are coming to market in the months ahead, and that should boost momentum.

Chrysler Group, for example, has confirmed the Fiat 500 EV will go on sales later this year, as will the Ford Focus Electric, Toyota’s Prius plug-in and RAV4-EV and Honda’s first battery-electric entry. Overall, EV sales could easily double in 2012, by general consensus.

Of course, the question is whether that will be enough to sustain momentum. Until recently, GM had been planning to produce 60,000 plug-in hybrids in 2012, up from about 10,000 last year – with 45,000 of them aimed at the American market. The maker has not said how the coming shutdown will impact its plans for the full year. But a spokesperson insisted momentum is building despite what GM sees as a temporary setback – in part because an updated version of the Chevrolet Volt will now qualify for the coveted California HOV lane sticker.
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