Suddenly, it's a three-car race for electric-powered dominance


By David J. Unger, Correspondent / May 2, 2013

The race for acceptance of electric vehicles has gone from a two-car competition to a three-car free-for-all.

For the second month in a row, the Nissan Leaf beat the Chevy Volt in sales and could soon take over in sales year to date. Now, luxury carmaker Tesla Motors is joining the fray. Even though sales of electric cars cooled in April, the appearance of Tesla is livening up the competition.

"It’s a neck-and-neck race for those three," said Alec Gutierrez, senior market analyst for Kelley Blue Book, in a telephone interview.

Leaf sales dip after a record month. Nissan sold 1,937 Leafs in April, a 423.5 percent increase from a year ago, but down from March 2013's record sale of 2,236 Leafs. March is always a strong month for Japanese manufacturers because it marks the close of their fiscal year, Mr. Gutierrez noted. So it's no surprise that Leaf sales growth would slow a bit in April, which is typically a slower month for the industry overall. 

Price is key to the Leaf's recent success. In January, Nissan cut the Leaf's price by $6,000, to $28,800. That's significantly less than the roughly $40,000 price tag for the Volt. A $7,500 federal tax credit makes those numbers more appealing to consumers.

“With a strong April building on a record-breaking March, Nissan LEAF sales are now up over 160 percent year-to-date," said Jose Munoz, senior vice president of sales and marketing at Nissan Americas said in a statement. "The wider array of trim levels and lower price driven by the start of U.S. LEAF production at our Smyrna plant are bringing more new customers to our showrooms every day.”

Volt sales are falling. General Motors moved 1,306 Chevy Volts in April, down 10.7 percent from last year. The continued decrease means the Volt is quickly losing ground in the year-to-date race. GM has sold 5,550 so far this year, just barely edging ahead of the Leaf with 5,476 sales.

It may be a sign that the Volt is stuck in a bit of an electric vehicle (EV) no-man's land, undercut by the more affordable Leaf and outperformed by the luxury Tesla.

"EVs are a budding technology and they don’t fit into every consumer’s lifestyle," Jeremy Acevedo, an analyst with Edmunds.com, wrote in an e-mail. "While the price cut has certainly lured in new customers, between their high prices and mileage constraints, there are a finite number of consumers."

Tesla is off to a good start. Tesla Motors, which produces only luxury electric sedans, does not post monthly sales. But Bloomberg reports that the company will announce on May 8 that it sold 4,750 Model S units in the first quarter.

If that pace of sales continued through April, then Tesla would be leading the pack, even though its cars cost more than either the Leaf or the Volt. The Model S starts at $62,400. 

The Volt, priced in the middle of the pack, may be getting squeezed by electric-car buyers more interested in low-end prices or high-end performance. 

Coda files for bankruptcy. One company that won't be doing much of anything in the way of electric car sales is Coda Automotive. The California-based electric-car company filed for bankruptcy Wednesday, after sales of its $38,000 electric sedan fell "well short of the company's expectations." Coda plans to refocus its business strategy on energy storage, according to the company's press release.

While disappointing, analysts say the news is not exactly surprising, and shouldn't strike fear into the heart of EV enthusiasts.

"The problem with Coda was the product that they were putting out," wrote Mr. Acevedo. "If the dated styling wasn’t enough to deter customers, there were also questionable build quality issues, mediocre driving dynamics, and a hefty price tag to boot."

There's also the danger of companies putting all their eggs in the electric-car basket.

"Consumer acceptance is growing, but there’s still a lot of hesitation there," said Mr. Gutierrez. As a manufacturer solely focused on EVs, "you don’t have the full portfolio of more popular cars and trucks to offset less demand for EVs."