Nissan Motor Co. has sold 4,134 of the battery-powered electric cars this year. General Motors Co.'s Chevrolet, by comparison, has sold 2,745 of its Volt car, which is technically a plug-in hybrid because it runs on electricity for about 40 miles before a gasoline-fueled generator kicks in to extend the vehicle's range.
"The Leaf outselling the Volt helps the EV movement. The more Nissan sells, the more Leafs people will see on the road, and that might encourage others to take the plunge and buy an electric vehicle," he said.
Indeed, the electric car market is about to grow. Nissan and Chevrolet are ramping up production. In addition, other automakers have battery electric and plug-in offerings set to hit dealerships over the next 18 months, including the Mitsubishi iMiEV, the Ford Focus Electric, the Toyota Prius plug-in hybrid, the Honda Fit EV and a plug-in hybrid version of the Honda Fit, according to market analysis firm Automotive Lease Group.
Leaf sales are helped by a lower cost — a sticker price starting at $33,630 compared with the Volt's $41,000. And the Leaf has an added benefit for California buyers. It qualifies for a carpool-lane sticker, whereas the Volt is not expected to get that certification until midway through the 2012 model year. Both vehicles qualify for a $7,500 federal tax credit.
The Leaf and the Volt went on sale in small numbers late last year. Currently the Volt is available in just California, New York, Michigan, Connecticut, Texas, New Jersey and Washington, D.C. GM plans to begin nationwide deliveries before the end of the year.
The Leaf is sold in California, Arizona, Hawaii, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas and Washington state. Nissan said it would expand Leaf sales nationwide by the end of 2012.
One thing is clear from the early sales numbers, Electric-vehicle drivers are passionate early adopters who want to own their cars, even if that means paying far more than for a conventional gasoline car of similar size and with similar amenities.
Only 15% of Leaf drivers are taking advantage of the car's lease offer. About a third of Volt drivers are leasing the car.
Before the cars' introduction last year, some analysts believed that most of the sales would be lease contracts because the vehicles were new-technology cars without any reliability records or resale and trade-in track records. Leases leave Nissan and Chevrolet holding the risk of poor resale values and spotty reliability.
"These are early adopters, people who just can't wait to get their fingers on the car. They want to be able to say they own the car," said Oliver Hazimeh, an automotive industry consultant at PRTM.