With plug-in sales, GM and Nissan aren't competing, they're learning

It's tempting to pop up the sales numbers for the Nissan Leaf and the Chevy Volt each month and treat the results like the score of a sporting event. We certainly do it. However, when you're looking at low-volume cars whose numbers have been constrained by supply issues and customer confusion, these numbers don't necessarily have the same meaning as they would in scoring, for example, Toyotal Corolla sales vs. those of the Ford Focus.

There's some evidence (and a great deal of automaker confidence) that overall demand for both of the Lead and the Volt has been well in excess of the ability of either GM or Nissan to crank out product. It's likely to stay that way at least through the end of the year. When both of these plug-in models are available nationwide – in numbers that exceed those of an exotic vehicle – we'll be able to make more definitive statements about the market for these vehicles.

While we wait to satisfy our itch to keep score, Automotive News points out that both Nissan and GM are using this period for something very important: they're learning how to market these vehicles. Right now, the people lining up to put money down for one of these cars with plugs are sometimes doing so having never seen either car, and they're waiting months for delivery. That early adopter's market is often not very reflective of what the general public is looking for in a product. It's easy to sell a few thousand examples of a gadget, even a $40k gadget, to enthusiasts. It's harder to sell a million to people who simply want it to work.

At the moment, both GM and Nissan are feeling their way toward the market for green vehicles. GM is presenting the Volt as more of a luxury car for those with environmental leanings; a car that's fun to drive and flexible in energy choices. Nissan is concentrating on education and on the purity of their solution. No gas-powered hair dryers for Leaf owners. Both manufacturers are keen to picture their cars in ordinary activities and to downplay the rough spots of their solutions.

Eventually the manufacturing constraints on these two vehicles will ease, and we'll see how well GM and Nissan have done in creating a market for their EV and plug-in hybrid vehicles beyond the ranks of, say, people who read AutoblogGreen. In the meantime, the automakers are still limbering up for the fight, and the people who may be most interested are the folks at Ford and Toyota and other manufacturers – the companies that will enter this market well after Chevy and Nissan have tested the waters.

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