SAN FRANCISCO – 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.
In 2011, Americans bought 9,754 electric cars and 7,671 plug-in hybrids, according to the Edmunds.com auto information website. This year, sales of electrics reached 10,407 by the end of November, while plug-in hybrids hit 31,042.
Tesla and Volt
And those figures don’t count the new Tesla Motors Model S, which hit the market in June. 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.
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.
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.
Plug-in cars still face stiff headwinds. A recent survey by Pike Research found that only 35 percent of consumers were very interested in buying an electric car or advanced hybrid, down from 44 percent in 2010. Many of the people who responded didn’t understand the technology, with 37 percent, for example, saying the cars’ batteries were dangerous.
Prices still high
Prices remain high: $35,200 for a base-model Leaf and $39,145 for a Volt. And plug-ins must compete against a new generation of cheap, fuel-sipping cars that run on gasoline. “There are more and more vehicles out there that get 40 miles per gallon, and people are very comfortable with that,” said John Viera, global director of sustainability for Ford.
Bill Gravitt, of San Francisco, has an old Jet Electrica, a compact plug-in from the 1980s. This year, he added a Mitsubishi i-MiEV, a no-frills electric car with a range of roughly 70 miles per charge. Small and shaped like an egg, it handles well, accelerates quickly and serves as his day-to-day car, while he keeps a Ford Explorer at home for longer trips.
Gravitt likes the lower cost of using only electric power. But he also sees the car as a way to fight Big Oil.
“I want to do the right thing,” said Gravitt, a property manager. “I resent the hold the oil companies have over the United States. I do everything I can to boycott oil.”