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Will Nissan Leaf sales soar in 2013?

Nissan Leaf sales will rise in 2013 thanks to a drop in sales price, Voelcker predicts. But the 2013 Nissan Leaf sales won't soar into the stratosphere.

By John VoelckerGuest blogger / February 5, 2013

The Nissan Leaf electric car is displayed for media in Tokyo. US Nissan Leaf sales this year will rise notably from 10,000 a year, Voelcker predicts.

Junji Kurokawa/AP/File

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It happens every so often: a spate of media reports with gloom-and-doom headlines about what a dismal failure electric cars are.

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Take, for instance, this morning's in Reuters--"Electric Cars Head Toward Another Dead End"--or a weekend report in The Detroit News entitled "Electric Vehicle Sales Sputter."

So, let's review.

Yes, the optimistic predictions of plug-in electric cars sales made by manufacturers two or three years before production and sales began have not been met.

Yes, electric cars will be a small portion of the market for several years to come.

Yes, battery-electric cars may be a smaller portion of the total than range-extended electrics and plug-inhybrids for years to come as well. 

None of that negates the growth in sales: From a modest first-year level of about 17,500 plug-in electric cars sold in the U.S. in 2011, sales tripled last year.

And that's even before adding in results from Tesla Motors--whose Model S is now assumed to be selling at a rate of up to 20,000 per year.

Proponents of "pure electric" cars, run only on batteries, point to both the Tesla Model S and the less expensive, updated 2013 Nissan Leaf as the cars that will rescue that segment of the broader plug-in universe.

But will a cheaper 2013 Leaf really cause sales to soar beyond the 9,000-to-10,000 annual level they were at in both 2011 and 2012?

We think sales will rise--depending in part on what incentives Nissan provides on the new U.S.-built Leaf--but that they won't soar into the stratosphere. Pike Research agrees.

For one thing, the 2013 Leaf is still a $30,000-plus car unless you get the absolute base model, the Leaf S, and don't add any options--including the desirable 6.6-kilowatt charger.

While Nissan is continuing its $199-per-month lease offer on the 2013 Leaf, not all buyers want to lease.

And industry analysts often focus too much on sticker price, whereas today, electric cars are not sold on price but to meet a variety of different motivations among various buyers.

But more than that, the 2013 Leaf is a slightly upgraded, slightly less expensive tweak to the same Leaf we've seen for two years now.

It has a larger, more usable load bay, and that 6.6-kW charger option that cuts Level 2 recharging time roughly in half. Those are good upgrades, but they're minor.

Still, while its electric range hasn't yet been certified by the EPA--Nissan expects a modest increase from last year's 73-mile rating, it says--its range won't soar to 100 miles or anything close.

And there remain less expensive plug-in cars on the market (notably the Mitsubishi i-MiEV and revised 2013 Smart Electric Drive), though neither is as large and capacious as the Leaf.

We're not going to get into sales predictions at this stage, though we do think U.S. Leaf sales this year will rise notably from 10,000 a year.

We know Leaf sales for February and perhaps March will be significantly lower than the 1,500-per-month rate seen at the end of last year. Nissan has already all but sold out its inventory of 2012 Leafs imported from Japan.

The first 2013 models will leave the Tennessee plant en route to dealers this month, but filling the distribution pipeline could take until the end of March, according to Nissan spokesman Travis Parman.

That means that it won't be until April or May that Leaf sales will return to "normal"--whatever that rate may be.

We think it will take time for the Leaf to find its market(s), wherever it's built, simply due to the real phenomenon of buyer range anxiety and winter weather--which can cut the Leaf to 50 miles of range in some circumstances.

Nissan will also have to produce a sustained marketing campaign that underscores the pluses of owning an electric car--well byond the same old, "It's good for you and the planet" message.

So that "time" may be measured not in months, but years, just as it was for the Toyota Prius hybridfrom 2000 through 2004.

How do you think the Leaf will sell during 2013?

The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best auto bloggers out there. Our guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. To contact us about a blogger, click here. To add or view a comment on a guest blog, please go to the blogger's own site by clicking on the link in the blog description box above.

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