At the Detroit Auto Show last month, I sat down with some Nissan executives who were celebrating the sale of the 10,000th Leaf battery car in the U.S. (and 20,000th worldwide). Behind them on the company’s stand was the eNV200, a plug-in version of one of Nissan’s minivans and one of three new electric cars Nissan will have on the road by 2015. Brendan Jones, a Nissan marketing and sales strategist, told me, “From a Leaf perspective, 2011 was a great year, and very positive for the company.” He said that Nissan’s EV sales had topped those of any other automaker in history.
By traditional auto standards, 10,000 sales of a much-hyped model in a full calendar year are disappointing. The Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid, equally celebrated, did slightly worse, with sales of 7,671 in 2011. By contrast,Nissan sold 114,991 Sentras and 268,981 Altimas last year, and Chevrolet sold 204,808 Malibus.
Since the Obama administration offered subsidies to ease the EVs way forward, the early sales performance became the target of political attacks, particularly after a Volt caught fire following a government crash test. (The car waslater exonerated by federal regulators.) The Republican Party’s website headlined an article“Failed Promise: Obama’s Million Electric Cars ‘Overly Optimistic.’” Mitt Romney, the son of an auto company president, described the Volt “an idea whose time has not come,” and Rush Limbaugh said bluntly, “Nobody wants to buy any.”
But much of the reporting on the subject, and the attacks, failed to tell the full story. Neither the Volt nor Leaf were available nationwide in 2011, and both were plagued by supply problems. Leaf customers on the East Coast, who put down early deposits, should be getting their cars in the coming months, and Nissan hopes to double production and delivery in 2012. The EV technology is still a novelty for prospective buyers, but the necessary charging networks, though still embryonic, are growing rapidly.
Yet while the big electric car launches of 2011 failed to find as many buyers as hoped, automakers and analysts still see increasing success for electric vehicles in the U.S. and in global markets, including China, which will soon be the world’s largest. The future, they say, lies in new battery technologies that will lower the cost and increase the range of EVs. And tougher mileage standards for U.S. auto fleets, set to kick in over the next decade, will give the cars a big boost.
Felix Kramer, who founded CalCars.org to promote plug-in hybrids, is optimistic. “In spite of press reports of disappointing sales, we don’t hear about unsold cars stuck on dealer lots or buyers’ remorse. We do hear current and prospective owners talking about the features they want in the next cars that come to market.” He points out that Ford, Honda, Toyota, Mitsubishi, BMW, and most other carmakers will be rolling out new EV models over the next two years.