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Electric cars, plug-in hybrids gain sales

Bill Gravitt of S.F. with his Mitsubishi i-MiEV, a no-frills electric car with a range of roughly 70 miles per charge. Photo: Liz Hafalia, The Chronicle / SF

In 2012, the electric car’s critics were ready to write its obituary.

Sluggish sales made plug-in cars a favorite target of conservative commentators, a symbol of Big Government foisting pricey green technologies on an unwilling public. Critics rebranded the Chevy Volt as the “Obama car” and used its low sales figures to bash the federal bailout of General Motors.

But even as plug-in cars came under attack, their sales slowly grew. The numbers are still small, making up a tiny slice of the automotive market. But they rose steadily in 2012 as automakers introduced more models of electric cars and advanced hybrids.

“It’s definitely a strong showing by both all-electrics and plug-in hybrids this year,” said Jeremy Acevedo, supervisor of industry analysis with the auto information website. “We’re seeing more cars for more people.”

In 2011, Americans bought 9,754 electric cars and 7,671 plug-in hybrids, according to Edmunds. This year, sales of electrics reached 10,407 by the end of November, while plug-in hybrids hit 31,042.

And those figures don’t count the new Tesla Motors Model S, which hit the market in June. Palo Alto’s Tesla, which reports sales figures only once each quarter, has taken 13,000 reservations for the all-electric Model S and expects to deliver 2,500 to 3,000 by the end of the year.

The much-derided Volt, meanwhile, has emerged as the field’s leader.

GM sold 7,671 Volts in 2011, the first full year of sales. This year, drivers bought 20,828 Volts through the end of November. At that pace, the car’s sales total for the year could hit 22,000.
Volt gaining

Consumers seem to be warming to the Volt’s technology. The car runs on electricity alone for the first 25 to 50 miles of a trip, then switches to gasoline – lessening the fear of running out of electric power, something that has dogged sales of pure electrics, such as the Nissan Leaf.

“With a Leaf’s limited range, you really have to make that lifestyle choice. But with a plug-in hybrid, you get to experience an electric car without range anxiety,” Acevedo said. “It’s a really convenient, easy step.”

The Leaf, the first all-electric car for the mass market, hasn’t gained the same traction as the Volt, at least not in America. Sales through the end of November totaled 8,330, putting Nissan on pace to sell slightly more this year than the 9,674 it sold in 2011. Brendan Jones, director of electric vehicle marketing for Nissan North America, said the company has sold nearly 50,000 Leafs worldwide since the car hit the market.

“This does take time,” he said. “We’re happy with the trajectory we’re on right now. We’d like to do anything we can to accelerate it.”



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