Plug-in hybrid sales gain traction as electric cars falter


Since a new generation of electric cars went on sale 18 months ago, the results have been far from jolting.

Sales of what are considered “pure” electric cars -- they run off just a battery and have no backup gasoline engine to kick in to power the vehicle when the electricity runs out -- have risen just 6% to slightly more than 4,100 during the first six months of this year compared with the same period a year earlier, according to auto information company

The gain, which amounts to just 234 cars, comes even though Ford, BMW Honda and Mitsubishi all have joined pioneer Nissan in offering electric vehicles. Analysts say the limited range of electric cars, their greater expense and the lack of a widespread public charging infrastructure have hurt the appeal of the vehicles.


But this doesn’t mean that “rechargeable’ cars are faltering in the marketplace.

Sales of plug-in hybrids -- vehicles that can travel some miles on battery power before a traditional gasoline engine kicks in and allows the vehicle to operate as an efficient hybrid auto -- are soaring. Thanks to a resurgent Chevrolet Volt and Toyota’s introduction of a plug-in version of its popular Prius, sales of such vehicles have jumped 380% to more than 13,000 this year, according to

“A lot of consumers believe an ideal vehicle might be an all-electric but the distance they drive might be greater than what an electric can handle,” said Michael O’Brien, the electric and hybrid vehicle marketing chief at Ford Motor Co.

Ford on Friday announced the range for its first plug-in hybrid -- the C-MAX Energi small crossover, which comes out later this year.

It will be able to travel about 20 miles on electric power and then a gas engine extends the range to what Ford claims is 550 miles. That would make the C-MAX one of a handful of vehicles and the only rechargeable auto that can drive from Sacramento to San Diego on one tank of gas.

Ford declined to say what it plans to charge for the C-MAX, which is expected to qualify for a $1,500 California rebate and car pool lane permits.

Clearly Ford is looking at the sales number for plug-ins this year and likes what it sees.

General Motors Co. has sold 8,817 Chevrolet Volts this year, a 221% increase. That includes 1,760 sold in June. Volt sales have been helped by the car’s recent qualification for the California rebate and car pool lane permits. About 28% of its sales were in California last month.


Toyota Motor Corp. has sold 4,374 of its Prius plug-ins through June, about 60% in California. The company has forecast that it will sell about 15,000 Prius plug-ins this year.

By comparison, Nissan has sold only 3,148 all-electric Leafs so far this year, down 18.8% from the same period a year earlier, and just 535 last month.

Mitsubishi has sold 333 of its i-MiEV electric-only car.

“The battery electric solution that is 100% gasoline-free really caters to a small audience because of the limited range of those vehicles,” O’Brien said. Ford does sell an all-electric vehicle -- a version of its Focus compact sedan.

Conventional hybrids -- which make up about 3% of auto sales -- get terrific fuel economy. However, they don’t give drivers the option of planning their routes to drive gas-free most of the time, while still being able to hit the road for Las Vegas or make a longer drive when needed without the fear of running out of power, O’Brien said.

Plug-in hybrids allow consumers to straddle both worlds.

As more companies come out with plug-ins -- look for a version of the Ford Fusion and the Honda Accord over the next year -- the debate will turn to what is the best electric-only range for these vehicles.

Toyota checks in with an 11-mile range, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The Volt gets 35 miles. (Individual drivers might do better or worse. The numbers are just guidelines.) Ford says the 20-mile range of the C-MAX is a sweet spot that can cover most one-way commutes and allow the driver to charge up for the return home.


[For the record, 1:30 p.m. July 20: A previous version of this post incorrectly stated that sales of electric-only vehicles had fallen from a year earlier.]


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