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Electric cars, hybrids see record sales

Electric cars like the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt and hybrids like Toyota's Prius C and Camry are selling better than ever. Automakers sold a record 52,000 hybrids, electric cars in March. 

By Dee-Ann DurbinAP Auto Writer / April 14, 2012

Bruce Sargent of Ashland, Ore., tops off the charge on his Nissan Leaf last month at a new electric car charging station in Central Point, Ore. Sales of electric cars are surging as gas prices go up.

Jeff Barnard/AP/File

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DETROIT

Americans are buying record numbers of hybrid and electric cars as gas prices climb and new models arrive in showrooms, giving the vehicles their greatest share yet of the U.S. auto market.

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Consumers bought a record 52,000 gas-electric hybrids and all-electric cars in March, up from 34,000 during the same month last year.

The two categories combined made up 3.64 percent of total U.S. sales, their highest monthly market share ever, according to Ward's AutoInfoBank. The previous high was 3.56 percent in July 2009, when the Cash for Clunkers program encouraged people to trade in old gas guzzlers for more fuel-efficient cars.

And while their share of the market remains small, it's a big leap from the start of the year, when hybrids andelectrics made up 2.38 percent of new car sales.

Buyers were drawn by new models like the Toyota Prius C subcompact, the Prius V wagon and Camry hybrid. Gas prices near or above $4 per gallon added to the cars' attraction.

David Martin, a Denver software engineer, estimates he'll save at least $150 per month on gas with his new Chevrolet Volt compared with the 2010 Acura TSX he replaced. Martin expects gas prices to stay high, a factor that heavily influenced his purchase.

"As the cost of gasoline rises, my future savings can only increase," he said.

Stronger sales of the Volt and the Nissan Leaf were a positive sign for electric car makers. The two vehicles have struggled to gain acceptance from buyers worried about how far they can drive on a battery charge.

Another concern: Volt maker General Motors Co. had to change the car's charging system because its batteries caught fire after government crash tests.

GM sold just 7,671 Volts last year, below its goal of 10,000. But in March, it set a new monthly record of 2,289 for the Volt, an electric car with a small backup gas engine. Sales of the all-electric Leaf nearly doubled to 579.

The Volt got a boost from California's decision to make it eligible for high-occupancy vehicle lanes. Starting March 1, buyers with a low-emissions Volt could use the HOV lane and get a $1,500 state tax credit on top of a $7,500 federal tax credit. GM said a quarter of the Volts it sold last month were sold in California.

Edward Ang, of Cupertino, Calif., has been planning to buy a Volt since GM first announced it would make thecar, but he waited until it qualified for the HOV sticker. He bought a Volt last month and now makes his 10-mile commute without using any gas. He used to drive a 2004 Prius.

"I made a promise to myself that if they bring it to market, I will get one," said Ang, an engineering manager.

Gas prices helped sales. The nationwide average for a gallon of gas jumped 19 cents in March, from $3.73 to $3.92, and it crossed the $4 mark in California even earlier. The $4 mark was a significant psychological milestone for some buyers, said Paul Lacy, who forecasts sales trends for consulting firm IHS Automotive.

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