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Phil Covington headshot

Stronger U.S. Sales of Hybrids and Plug-in Electrics in March

By Phil Covington

March turned out to be a big month for auto sales in the United States. Reuters reported that total vehicle sales were up 13 percent for the month, ending the best quarter in terms of total sales since 2008.

The industry sees this as a sign of general economic recovery, but with high average gas prices prevailing at the pumps, hybrid cars and plug-in vehicles enjoyed a strong month, indicating fuel economy matters to many when making new car choices.

So what about plug-in electric vehicles? Without doubt, the sales figures for these vehicles are small by comparison with top selling vehicles today, but they could perhaps be a barometer reading for how these cars may do in the market over the next decade.

To be sure, it's not just small, fuel efficient vehicles that sold well during the month. WSJ reported the Ford F150 pickup was the best selling vehicle in the country for the month, selling 58,061 units in March - a nine percent increase over the prior month.

However, the sixth best seller was the hybrid Toyota Prius at 28,711 vehicles - a 54 percent increase. Ten years ago, few would have thought that a gasoline-electric hybrid vehicle would turn out to be a mainstream product, but with this ranking, it has clearly earned this status.

Hybridcars.com presented a breakdown of the March figures for other hybrids and plug-ins. The first thing you notice is that while there are about 35 hybrid vehicles on the market, the dominant company remains Toyota, and the Prius's close-to-thirty-thousand sales stands head and shoulders above everything else. The second bestseller is the Camry hybrid at 5,404  followed by the Lexus CT200h at 2,223 units.

These figures, however,  provide a bit of perspective for the numbers reported for plug-in electric vehicles, with the number one sales in this category going to the Chevrolet Volt. March sales for the Volt were 2,289 vehicles, an increase of 123.8 percent over February - and stronger than the third best non plug-in gasoline-hybrid vehicle.

Recently, the media has been very keen to infer the Volt has failed to be a hit, by pointing out the temporary suspension of Volt production due to sluggish sales. Well, strong sales in March sales have reduced inventory and allowed the company to begin an earlier restart of production than planned.

Now, of course, compared with sales for the Ford F150, Volt sales are a drop in the ocean - actually no, the scale is wrong there - to be fair, more like a drop in the hot-tub, but consider the piece I wrote last July, which reported total 6 month sales for the Volt were 2,745 cars. Just 8 months later, March 2012 reached in a single month, almost the equivalent of the first six months total of Volt sales. That's not too shabby.

The other car to benchmark, or course, is the all electric Nissan LEAF. Sales for this car were less impressive than the Volt at 579 units, but even so, this was a 21 percent improvement over February's figures.

Whether or not April will be as strong remains to be seen. Fewer jobs added in March than for the first couple of months of the year, might pour a little water on the fire for vehicle sales in general, but it seems reasonable to suggest that plug-in electric vehicles have traction in the market place.

It would be unwise and silly to suggest that people will universally want smaller, fuel-efficient vehicles, and that electric vehicles will necessarily end up dominating the vehicle market. And it will also be some time before - if ever - electric vehicles can do everything as well a gasoline vehicles can do in all segments. But, it seems increasingly reasonable to suggest that plug-in electric cars will gradually become an accepted part of the vehicle mix, and maybe journalists will begin to stop reporting that no one wants them. March sales figures suggest they are here now, and they are gaining in importance.

Photo Credit

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Phil Covington holds an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School. In the past, he spent 16 years in the freight transportation and logistics industry. Today, Phil's writing focuses on transportation, forestry, technology and matters of sustainability in business.

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