Plug-in Hybrids Pull Ahead of EVs

By · August 03, 2012

PHEVs vs. EV

It has been a difficult year so far for all-electric vehicles. After an encouraging start in 2011, Nissan LEAF sales have fallen off of late, with the month of June representing a 69 percent drop in purchases over the year before. July saw monthly sales drop further, to just 395 units. Halfway through the year, Nissan has notched just 3,148 LEAFs sold, and while an improved 2013 model of the car should help pick things up a bit later this year, it's becoming increasingly unliklely that Nissan will come close to satisfying its goal of 20,000 sales in 2012.

Outside of the LEAF, no other affordable mass-market electric has made big waves either, with the Mitsubishi i, Ford Focus Electric, Smart EV and BMW Active E combining for just 328 total units moved in June.

Meanwhile, the fortunes of the Chevy Volt seem to have reversed themselves nicely since GM temporarily shut down production of the vehicle in February. Since then, the Volt has tripled its volume over the first half of last year, with 8,817 orders through June. In July, Chevy sold 1,849 units, compared to just 125 the year before. The Toyota Prius plug-in is also doing well, having sold 4,333 cars since hitting the market in late February.

In a reversal of 2011's trend, plug-in hybrid sales are growing at a surprising clip this year, while EVs seem to have hit some sort of an early adopter plateau.

The Electric-Drive Rivalry

Two years ago, the mass plug-in car market as we knew it consisted of the Nissan LEAF battery electric vehicle (BEV), and the Chevy Volt, a plug-in hybrid (PHEV). Though neither car would hit American roads for months to come, it was clear from reading comments and message boards on sites like Plugincars.com that a good portion of electric-drive enthusiasts had already separated themselves into two rival groups: BEV-lovers and PHEV-lovers.

Though the virtual battle lines between the LEAF and Volt enthusiasts could at times be contentious, they were nothing compared to the war that was playing out in the publicity campaigns surrounding the two vehicles. At media events and in its advertising, General Motors was often careful to point out that the reason its vehicle was destined to succeed was because it didn't cause range anxiety―the implication being that that BEVs were fated struggle in the face of it. Nissan countered in its "What if Everything Ran on Gas?" TV spot, which featured a man filling the tank of his Chevy Volt while staring longingly at a passing LEAF.

Automakers Pick Sides

As more and more electric-drive concepts approach the market, we're getting a clearer picture of where the various carmakers stand in this rivalry. Aside from a limited-release RAV4 EV (a compliance car aimed in large part at satisfying California regulators,) Toyota is squarely in the plug-in hybrid camp, and has shared no plans release a mass-market EV. Hyundai appears to be following a similar strategy and is only seriously considering releasing one plug-in, a PHEV version of its i30, which has been rumored to be headed to market in the near future.

Ford began selling its Focus Electric this summer, though the company hasn't done much to promote the car and has said it would be satisfied with relatively modest sales numbers. Meanwhile, the Blue Oval will soon begin selling two new plug-in hybrids, the C-Max Energi crossover and the Fusion Energi sedan. At just under $30,000 after incentives, the C-Max Energi is priced to be compete, and the Fusion Energi is said to have its sites on becoming the most fuel-efficient mid-size car in the world. By the looks of it, Ford seems to be choosing to PHEVs (at least at the outset.)

All of this doesn't mean that fully electric vehicles aren't the long term solution. As batteries get cheaper and Americans get used to benefits and drawbacks of ditching gas in favor of cars with limited range, it's possible that PHEVs will one day come to be viewed as a vestige of the vehicle electrification movement. For now though, plug-in hybrids seem to be the more likely next-generation solution to succeed in the mass market.

New to EVs? Start here

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