Nissan Leaf sales soar in record month for plug-in cars

March car sales showed growth in electric vehicles, with a dramatic jump in Nissan Leaf sales. March 2013 will probably be one of the best months ever for the electric vehicle industry, although it's still a small sliver of the automotive market.

Toru Hanai/Reuters/File
A man walks under a Nissan logo at the company's showroom in Yokohama, south of Tokyo. The latest car sales figures show that Nissan sold 2,236 Leafs in March 2013, a 286 percent increase over a year ago.

Sales of the Nissan Leaf roared to life in March, breaking the record for sales of electric vehicles in a month that may turn out to be the industry's best yet.

"[I]t’s looking like a record-breaking month for plug-in sales," wrote Genevieve Cullen, vice president of the Electric Drive Transportation Association, a Washington-based advocacy group, in an e-mail. "The numbers show a growing, robustly competitive market, in part because of the increasing number of options that manufacturers are offering."

It's a notable jump for electric vehicles, but less significant in the broader automotive market.

Last month, Nissan sold 2,236 Leafs, a 286 percent increase over March 2012. To put that in perspective, analysts estimate total March 2013 car and truck sales reached nearly 1.5 million. 

"To sell a couple thousand in a month, it’s a drop in the bucket," said Cosmin Laslau, an analyst at Lux Research, a Boston-based research and advisory firm. "I don't mean to dismiss it entirely, but the bigger question is: How do you get that number from 2,000 to 200,000?"

One way to do it is to lower prices – a strategy that seems to be working for Nissan. Electric car batteries are expensive and the company has moved manufacturing plants to the US in an effort to make the Leaf cost-competitive. The March sales numbers reflect the first full sales month for the new, lower-priced Nissan Leaf 2013. 

"[T]hey’ve concentrated on reducing price as much as possible," Mr. Laslau said. "They’ve been very aggressive about this." 

The price of electric car battery cells will continue to decrease, falling by half over the next 10 years, according to projections by Lux Research. 

In the meantime, the 2013 Leaf will take you about 75 miles on a single charge, but costs around $28,800.  

Tesla Motors has taken the opposite approach. The Model S has a range of 265 miles but will set you back about $59,900.   

This high-price, high-range strategy also shows promise. Tesla doesn't report monthly sales figures, but the company did announce late Sunday that it sold more than 4,750 units in the first quarter of 2013, above its target of 4,500. It also expects to report a profit for the first time in the company's 10-year history.

March was less kind to the Chevy Volt. Chevrolet delivered 1,478 Volts in March 2013, down 35.4 percent from a year prior. But it still leads the EV pack in sales in 2013. Chevrolet has sold 4,244 Volts so far this year while Nissan has sold 3,539 Leafs in 2013.   

Combined, electric vehicles have made up 3.8 percent of US vehicle sales in 2013, according to the Electric Drive Transportation Association.

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