U.S. plug-in vehicle sales could increase more than fivefold this year to 100,000 units, website CleanFleetReport.com said, citing technology research firm Gartner's calculation of what various auto manufacturers plan or expect for 2012.

Thilo Koslowski, vice president of Gartner's Automotive and Vehicle Practice, confirmed the forecast, which factors in issues such as a wider range of battery-electric models, an improving U.S. economy that will allow consumers to spend more on alternative-fueled vehicles and the Japan earthquake and tsunami last year, which hampered supply from Japanese automakers like Toyota and Nissan. Even though this is what the automakers say is coming, Koslowski thinks this number is rather ambitious and that actual sales for new EV and plug-in vehicle sales in 2012 will probably be between 40,000 and 60,000 vehicles.

Last year, there were about 18,000 plug-in vehicle sales in the U.S., including 9,674 Nissan Leaf EVs and 7,671 Chevrolet Volt extended-range plug-ins. Mitsubishi introduced its i EV last November, while Toyota will start selling a plug-in version of the Prius this year while Ford is gearing up to start sales of its all-electric Focus.

Last year, green-technology research firm Pike Research said Americans will buy about 300,000 BEVs and PHEVs in 2015, up from about 50,000 in 2011, while Michigan's Center for Automotive Research projected in early 2011 that U.S. electric-drive vehicle sales will increase to about 140,000 units in 2014. While these numbers are all slightly different, they do all predict that a pretty serious increase in plug-in sales coming soon.

*UPDATE: This post has been updated to reflect that the 100,000 number is not Koslowski's or Gartner's estimate.

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