Sales of plug-in hybrids tumbled to nearly half their level from September and October.


The optimist would be likely to note that sales of the Chevrolet Volt were up 30 percent in November, at least when compared with year-ago numbers. But pessimists, of which there are many, would be more likely to point out that sales of the plug-in hybrid tumbled to nearly half their level from September and October.

The Volt was toppled from its throne as the nation's top-selling electric car by both the Nissan Leaf and Toyota Prius Plug-In. But even those vehicles slipped a bit during what was otherwise the best month the US auto industry has had, overall, since March of 2008.

There's no question that demand for battery-based vehicles has increased this year, but here again it's a case of half-empty or half-full. Most products have fallen well short of expectations. Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn has already acknowledged Leaf will miss its 2012 target and Volt will be lucky to get halfway to its original US goal of 45,000. For its part, Mitsubishi had hoped to nail down 20,000 units of its tiny i electric car this year, but it has only sold in the hundreds, not thousands.


Paul EisensteinPaul A. Eisenstein is Publisher of TheDetroitBureau.com and a 30-year veteran of the automotive beat. His editorials bring his unique perspective and deep understanding of the auto world to Autoblog readers on a regular basis.


"2012 wasn't a year that has convinced anyone these cars will be a success," acknowledges Terry O'Day, director of California business development for eVgo, a Texas-based firm hoping to set up a network of high-speed chargers that could help spur demand. On the other hand, should battery cars be written off, as former GOP presidential contender Mitt Romney argued when he declared Tesla Motors and Fisker Automotive "losers"?

For those who subscribed to the Field of Dreams mantra, "If you build it, they will come," welcome to reality.

Despite the fear of being accused of equivocation, I'm tempted to waffle here and suggest, "Only time will tell." The reality is that it really is too early to write electric propulsion technology off. In fact, proponents will be quick to tell you that advanced battery vehicles – pure electrics like Leaf and plug-ins like Volt – are still selling more quickly than the first gas-electric hybrids, the original generation Toyota Prius and Honda Insight did a dozen years ago.

But for those who subscribed to the Field of Dreams mantra, "If you build it, they will come," well, welcome to reality. It's likely to be a long, hard slog

And one significant reason is that today's conventional automotive technology is just getting so much better than ever. "Most technologies will achieve their most significant breakthroughs when they are threatened by a new paradigm," Dr. David Cole, director-emeritus of the Center for Automotive Research, is quick to point out.

Perhaps nowhere is that more true than with the internal combustion engine. That was underscored by the fact that two of the five finalists for the Green Car of the Year relied on pure gasoline power – the Dodge Dart and the Mazda CX-5. The ultimate winner, the 2013 Ford Fusion, was chosen in large part because of the wide range of options it offers consumers, from its most basic inline-four to the 95 MPGe Fusion Energi plug-in. In between are two EcoBoost offerings which use such advanced features as direct injection and turbocharging to yield the once seemingly impossible combination of better performance and improved mileage.

It wasn't all that long ago that manufacturers screamed about the old 27 mpg CAFE numbers.

It wasn't all that long ago that manufacturers kicked and screamed about meeting the old 27 mile per gallon Corporate Average Fuel Economy numbers, and one of the Obama Administration's first big efforts focused on winning support for boosting that to 37.5 mpg by 2016. As a story we recently ran on TheDetroitBureau.com suggested, 40 is now the new 30. In the small to midsize segments, manufacturers are quickly getting up to fuel economy levels that once seemed impossible. Once, as in perhaps five years ago.

Of course, it helps to take other critical steps. Improved aerodynamics can add several miles per gallon to a vehicle's combined EPA rating. So can low rolling resistance tires. Add in the latest seven, eight, and nine-speed gearboxes, and such nifty little technologies as stop/start which shuts off your engine rather than idling then automatically starts it up when you lift your foot off the brake.

The bottom line is, well, the bottom line. The Fusion with a 1.6-liter EcoBoost four-cylinder gets a combined 29 mpg compared with 47 for the Fusion Hybrid. For a motorist doing a typical 12,000 miles a year, the EcoBoost will suck down just over 400 gallons. At $4.00/gallon, that works out to around $1,655 annually. For the hybrid the variables are 255 gallons and $1,020. Yes, that's a $635 savings, but it's one that doesn't look quite as beckoning when you pencil in the $6,700 price differential.

The better the conventional model does, the harder it becomes to make the case for battery power.

And a little understanding of math reveals that the better the conventional model does, the harder it becomes to make the case for battery power – even if the hybrid gap remains the same. A 40 mpg rating for a gas-powered compact would work out to 300 gallons a year, or $1,200. At 60 mpg, a hybrid would still use 200 gallons, so the savings would be just $400.

There are those who simply want to ban the gas pump from their lives and for them, the equation has to include the benefits of thumbing your nose at OPEC and doing just a little more to resist global warming. (We'll save the debate over coal-fired electric power for another column.)

The ultimate question is how far can conventional gas – or diesel – technology go? Can we reach the 2025 goal of 54.5 mpg without forcing everyone into vehicles the size of a European Volkswagen Up!?

The answer is likely no, not if we want to have the range of choice – at least when it comes to maintaining anything close to the vehicle size and functionality offered motorists today. Some form of battery assistance, at the very least, seems probably on a wide range of products a decade from now.

Of course, the equation shifts dramatically if the Department of Energy can meet its so-called "555" goal, a fivefold improvement in battery energy density and a fivefold reduction in price over the next five years.

We're a nation that has delivered on the seemingly impossible before, from moon shots to 40 mpg gas-powered sedans. So, perhaps, a few years from now buyers will find that battery cars are a bargain. Until then, they're likely to remain a hard sell.


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    • 1 Second Ago
  • 101 Comments
      Peter
      • 2 Years Ago
      We are zounds ahead of where we were 5 years ago when conversions ruled the electric avenue. The limit at this point is that the gas engine and its fuel are still too cheap at current prices in NA. We are at a difficult early stage where the battery price is limiting. Hence the dominance of the Volt and similar battery sparing technologies amongst electrics. Give us the 555 battery tech increases with concomitant increases in gas price not only will the gas engine become less viable, the plug in hybrid will be obsolete as battery will be the cheaper approach.
        Pinhead
        • 2 Years Ago
        @Peter
        Could be true, but I think we'll be contending with "range anxiety" for some time, which currently is something that a pure electric really can't placate. I think under best conditions, you're looking at like 20 to 60 minutes to recharge, while you can refill your tank in less than 5 minutes. But maybe you're right, if you can truly buy a pure electric for so significantly less than a hybrid or gasser, it'd be a much easier sell and maybe people would just learn to deal with the long recharge time.
          Rob
          • 2 Years Ago
          @Pinhead
          Yeah the charging is the big issue for many people. Its not just the charge time at a station while travelling but imagine having to wait that 20-60 minutes for a spot to open and another 20-60 minutes charging your car. I've always thought companies coming up with a universal battery design and a method for quick change out was actually a better concept than charging the battery in car. Kinda like propane exchange. The site would look like a car wash with 5-10 bays and either a hallow floor under the car or a lift and the battery would be dropped out and replaced with a fully charged one. The option to charge the battery in the car would still remain and many people would charge at home for day to day driving.
          ElectricAvenue
          • 2 Years Ago
          @Pinhead
          If you don't exceed the range of the car during the day then the time taken to recharge is a non-issue. Most people park their cars overnight. I really think this issue is overblown. If you regularly exceed the range of the car then it's an issue, but there's a very large market consisting of people who don't, or who have another convenient option for the times that they do. As awareness increases of the total cost of ownership, EVs will become more popular.
      Andre Neves
      • 2 Years Ago
      Things I want in an electric vehicle... - 250+ mile range - Charge stations at most fuel stations - Quick charging times that won't inconvenience me when not home - Affordable models I know, eventually the technology will get there. But until then, I'm not interested. And I think many others are on the same boat as me. The current offerings just aren't practical and most of the buyers who are jumping in the showrooms are either wealthy or showoffs(gotta have the newest toy in the neighborhood).
        • 2 Years Ago
        @Andre Neves
        [blocked]
          Andre Neves
          • 2 Years Ago
          nobody23753, And that is why I also said "charge stations at most fuel stations" along with "Quick charging times that won't inconvenience me when not home".
          brotherkenny4
          • 2 Years Ago
          There are more cars in the US than licensed drivers. Not only do most household own several, in many cases individuals own several. These are tough economic times these american individuals and familys are in, with only several vehicles per family or person. It's amazing we can even survive.
      New Shimmer
      • 2 Years Ago
      Winter. That's why hybrid and electric cars' sales fell off in November. The batteries don't perform as well in the winter. I'll probably buy a hybrid as my next car, but I'm not going to buy it right before winter, because the reduced performance would probably disappoint me.
        John Hansen
        • 2 Years Ago
        @New Shimmer
        For what it's worth, here is my winter experience with the Volt in Wisconsin. - Downside: range down to 30 miles if I disable engine assisted heating. This is in 20 degree weather running on pure electric. My commute is 23 miles so that suits me fine. - I like that I can hear my car up in my garage. I didn't do that with my old car because exhaust would get into my house. - When I don't pre-heat, I like that the heater starts working more quickly than my old car because it doesn't have to warm up the engine. On my old car, the heater would only start to work when I got halfway to my destination. - The default auto setting on the heater directs all the heat to your feet and it doesn't feel so warm. You need to push the button to direct the heat to the dash vents, and then it feels like a normal car. - I like not having to stand in the cold putting gas in my car all the time. I'll probably do that only once or twice more this winter. Overall I'm very pleased with the Volt as a winter car.
        montoym
        • 2 Years Ago
        @New Shimmer
        Not that I disagree that BEV cars do worse in winter (as all cars do really, but it's less of an issue for gas vehicles). However, to assume that people aren't buying them because they're concerned about winter seems odd to me. Do they not expect winter to come next year after they put off their purchase until Spring?
          PeterScott
          • 2 Years Ago
          @montoym
          People change buying habits every time fuel prices increase (buy more small cars/hybrids) or decrease (buy more big cars/SUVs). Do they expect fuel prices to remain the same forever? Generally speaking, people are very short sighted. Current conditions have great influence over purchase decisions.
      carguy1701
      • 2 Years Ago
      I should hope so. They aren't ready for primetime.
      PeterScott
      • 2 Years Ago
      You seriously need to stop making knee jerk conclusions on a one month worth of data. We are barely in the infancy of the plug in market and these are still essentially economy cars selling for nearly $40000. The market for that kind of pricing is always going to be the small leading edge of early adopters. Mass market sales, will take mass market pricing.
        JakeY
        • 2 Years Ago
        @PeterScott
        I was about to point out the same thing. This guy's reading a lot into a slight drop in demand month-to-month. Of course he ignores the huge year over year increases. If you plot out the growth of "electric" driven cars (this includes hybrids) the growth has been exponential. If you count only plug-ins, the growth has also been exponential. Yes, month-to-month it'll vary, but that happens with every car and has more to do with short-term/seasonal incentives, model year changes, supply, etc. than overall demand for a certain segment of car.
      Mason
      • 2 Years Ago
      When the car was first invented A LOT of people stuck to their horse and buggy because of the high cost and unproven technology that cars were then. Henry Ford changed all of that and look at where we are now. The same exact thing is happening again, but with the electric car. For most people the technology and infrastructure (our suburbs were literally designed around the combustion engine vehicle) just aren't there. But, with any new technology there is a learning curve for both the manufacturer and consumer and with time I have no doubt that the electric car will be universally functional and accepted.
        tiguan2.0
        • 2 Years Ago
        @Mason
        Please don't tell me you are like Obama and claim Henry Ford invented the automobile!
      bluepongo1
      • 2 Years Ago
      Every time I see an ad with Tesla patented tech ( Lincoln: air bag seat belts, Caddy: magnetic suspension and stories about OEM's looking for drive and computer tech.) I see the slow death of internal combustion cars.
      m_2012
      • 2 Years Ago
      Tesla doesn't think so!
      Generic
      • 2 Years Ago
      The Volt is the closest thing to a normal looking car. The Leaf and iQ are so far out their on looks, I find them painful to even look at. One can blame the fact that they are plug in cars or EVs all they want, but the fact is, they are not good looking or marketed well. Lots of people would LOVE to have a Tesla, even if it out of the cost of many people, they want one. I don't know of anyone who really really really wants a Leaf, iQ, Volt. They all are missing the desirability factor.
        tiguan2.0
        • 2 Years Ago
        @Generic
        Odd, I find the Volt reVOLTing to look at.
        icemilkcoffee
        • 2 Years Ago
        @Generic
        The Scion IQ is a conventional gasoline car.
        Generic
        • 2 Years Ago
        @Generic
        I was actually thinking about Mitsu's electric and called it the iQ by mistake. Its so irreverent, I can't even remember its name.
      Spec
      • 2 Years Ago
      Anyone described as a "a 30-year veteran of the automotive beat" has HUGE built-in biases against EVs. Basically, all their knowledge about emissions, fuel injectors, oil change regimes, variable timed engine controls, gas v. diesel, carburetors, transmissions, etc. becomes completely useless. So whether intentional or not, there is going to be an inherent anti-EV bias.
        Rotation
        • 2 Years Ago
        @Spec
        Like Bob Lutz, amirite? He can't possibly be interested in a transition to EVs or EREVs, right? He's been in the business too long! On top of that, he's a senior citizen!
          Rotation
          • 2 Years Ago
          @Rotation
          Spec: Whoosh that flew right over your head.
          Spec
          • 2 Years Ago
          @Rotation
          Nice try but Bob Lutz may actually have pro-battery bias. He was CEO of a battery company for 4 years and continued on their board for another 2 years. CEO of Exide -- 1998 to 2002. Lutz was chairman and chief executive officer of Exide Technologies. He served as Chairman until his resignation on May 17, 2002, and as a member of Exide's Board of Directors until May 5, 2004.
      JGM038
      • 2 Years Ago
      I reallydont understand how people dont understand why these vehicles dont sell..its really quite simple. first well start with looks. the volt - a far shot of its sexy looking concept. the leaf - ugly. the miev - is that a go kart? the prius - wee look at me im eco friendly. build a normal looking car and people will more fully embrace it. second - price. even with the tax credits its still pretty lofty. it would take many years for the extra mileage pay off a 35k volt or 30k leaf when you could get a 16k cruze eco getting 42 mpg. Lastly , for strictly EVs..the range. i dont even need to elaborate. im not against EVswhatsoever - idlike to drive a vehicle with all its torque available at 0 rpm.. but the technology just isnt there yet... at least not for the prices they want.
        montoym
        • 2 Years Ago
        @JGM038
        In the interest of accuracy, the Chevy Cruze starts at just over $17k and the Eco version that achieves 42mpg starts at $20,490.
          montoym
          • 2 Years Ago
          @montoym
          Probably, but in the interest of comparing something that we can all see, MSRP is easiest to use. I don't see your Sunday paper and you don't see mine and the prices are probably different. However, we can all see the MSRP.
          Dave
          • 2 Years Ago
          @montoym
          Open up the Sunday paper and you will probably find them much cheaper than MSRP.
      postpast
      • 2 Years Ago
      I know a couple people who own the Volt and they are very happy. When you look at the unexpected performance and livability it seems very cool.
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