This was the year General Motors and Nissan made good on their promise to bring mass-produced electric cars to the market. But don't count on seeing one in traffic soon. Sales so far have been microscopic and they're likely to stay that way for some time because of limited supplies.
GM sold between 250 and 350 Chevy Volts this month and Nissan's sales totaled less than 10 Leaf sedans in the past two weeks. Production for both is slowly ramping up.
It will be well into 2012 before both the Volt and Leaf are available nationwide. And if you're interested in buying one, you'll need to get behind the 50,000 people already on waiting lists.
It's still unclear just how large the market for electric cars will be once those early adopters are supplied. The base sticker price is $40,280 for the Volt and $32,780 for the Leaf, much higher than most similar-sized, gas-powered cars. If those prices rise, it could make them even more of a niche product than predicted. Buyers also are worried that advertised lease deals may not last, and a federal tax rebate of $7,500 could disappear if Congress decides battery-powered cars are no longer a priority.
The first electric car sales were marked with fanfare. The envy of green-car geeks across the country, new owners were treated like rock stars at dealerships. They were greeted by high-level GM and Nissan executives, followed by cameramen and interviewed by local reporters. When they got home, they blogged about their experiences, sent links of newspaper stories to their friends, and stopped to talk to anyone who expressed interest in their new wheels.
Jeff Heeren of Nashville, Tennessee, became the sixth Nissan Leaf owner on Dec. 22. Nissan's advertising agency, Chiat Day, followed Heeren and his family around as they picked up their silver-colored Leaf, and have posted a video on the Leaf's Facebook page. Not surprisingly, Heeren is a fan. "What's amazed me the most in driving it is that it's just a car, like any other car," he said.
The Leaf is the only all-electric car on the market. It can travel about 100 miles on battery power before needing to be recharged. Using a standard outlet, that takes 16 to 18 hours. Nissan recommends that Leaf owners install a 220/240-volt outlet in their homes so they can recharge in about seven hours.
Japan-based Nissan initially sent only 10 Leafs to the U.S. and spokesman David Reuter said a second shipment of around 90 cars that arrived by cargo ship on Dec. 23 is on the way to dealers. Nissan won't give estimates on how many Leaf sedans it expects to sell in the U.S. next year, but says it has capacity to make 50,000 annually at a plant in Oppama, Japan. Those will be sold in Japan, the U.S. and Europe.
The Volt goes about 40 miles (65 kilometers) on battery power alone before needing to be recharged. But it comes with a backup gas engine that GM says can extend its range to 375 miles (603 kilometers) as it kicks in to recharge the batteries on the fly. GM believes the backup generator will make it a hit with customers who worry about being stranded with a dead battery.
The Volts are being assembled in Detroit. GM predicts it will sell 10,000 of them in 2011 and between 35,000 and 45,000 in 2012. By way of comparison, Chevrolet sold 187,250 Malibu sedans in the first 11 months of the year with sticker prices that start at $21,975.
Hybrids made up 2.4 percent of U.S. sales this year and the category that includes hybrids and electric cars is expected to double to 4.8 percent by 2013, according to consumer web site Edmunds.com. But electric vehicles likely will be only a small part of this total, said Michelle Krebs, senior analyst at Edmunds, and she doubts they will be big money makers for the car companies.