Chevy Volt sales triple in year of paradoxes for electric cars

Chevy Volt's record-breaking year falls short of the GM's sales target. Chevy Volt sales reflects a year of triumphs and shortcomings for electric-car technology.

Lucy Nicholson/Reuters/File
The Volt logo is displayed on a 2012 Chevy Volt electric car at the sixth annual Alternative Transportation Expo and Conference in Santa Monica, Calif., in this 2011 file photo. GM sold a record 23,461 Chevy Volts in 2012, triple the amount it did in 2011.

Depending on how you look at it, America's most popular electric car either had a standout year, or vastly undershot its sales target.

Indeed, it did both.

GM sold a record 23,461 Chevy Volts in 2012, triple the amount it did last year in the electric car's shaky debut. But the impressive figure is still well below GM's 2012 target of 35,000 to 40,000 – itself a reduction of the 60,000 GM CEO Dan Akerson initially projected.

Still, the Volt's sales growth bodes well for efficient vehicle energy use. The transportation sector has been the second largest energy consumer in the US since the 1950s, behind industry, according to the US Energy Information Administration. In 2010, cars and light trucks consumed 8.63 million barrels of oil per day, according to the EIA.

Chevy reports that Volt drivers have accumulated over 117 million EV miles driven. That adds up to a total fuel savings of about 6.2 million gallons, according to the company's calculations.

Other electric car leaders saw mixed 2012 results. Sales of the electric Nissan Leaf hit 9,819, 1.5 percent over 2011, but still less than half of Nissan's targeted 20,000.

The Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid surged ahead of the Leaf with 12,750 sales in 2012. Ford sold only 685 of its Ford Focus Electric in 2012, but the company's new hybrid C-MAX got a strong start, selling 13,309 in the four months since its September debut. 

Once all automakers issue their final reports, electric vehicle sales will likely have tripled in 2012, to a total of roughly 53,000, according to Green Car Reports. Despite the growth, the figure is still a small percentage of the total 14.5 million expected to have been sold in 2012.

Perhaps it's a fitting end to a paradoxical year for the electric vehicle.

Early sluggish sales figures got a boost as Chevy and Nissan offered generous rebates and California granted solo Volt drivers access to carpool lanes.

In October, a major electric car battery manufacturer declared bankruptcy. The next month, Tesla Model S became the first electric car to win the Motor Trend Car of the Year. 

Electric cars became a target of opposition to federal clean-energy subsidies throughout the 2012 presidential campaign, despite advocates hailing them as the cleaner, quieter future of automotive transportation. 

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