Electric car sales hummed along in May amid a solid month for the auto industry.
Small, fuel-efficient cars and family-friendly minivans tend to do well this time of year, as drivers plan road trips for the upcoming summer driving season. But the surprise story this year was May's strong full-size pickup truck sales – not exactly a sign an endorsement of efficiency and alternative fuels.
"Looking at this month's reports, you're going to see the complete opposite of hybrids or electrics," said Jessica Caldwell, a senior analyst at Edmunds.com. The electric car "is not going to be the growth market for the month that people are talking about."
But electric cars held their own in May. The Nissan Leaf continued its dominance over the Chevy Volt, and luxury electric carmaker Tesla Motors continued to make its presence known. Meanwhile, Better Place, an Israeli company specializing in battery-swapping for electric cars, bit the dust late last week.
Leaf has its second-best month yet. Nissan sold 2,138 Leafs in May, up 319 percent over last year. In March, the company sold a record 2,236 units of its all-electric vehicle. That's still only 2 percent of Nissan's total of 106,558 sales in May – a new record for Nissan sales in May.
The introduction of a cheaper model has buoyed Leaf sales throughout 2013, and the company has cut costs by shifting production from Japan to a plant in Tennessee.
“Since launching the U.S.-assembled 2013 LEAF with a broader range of trims and reduced price, we’ve seen increasing interest and consistent performance for our electric vehicle," Erik Gottfried, director of marketing for Nissan Leaf, said in an e-mailed statement. "... LEAF traditionally has sold great on the West Coast, and now we’re seeing places like Atlanta, Chicago and Denver become hot markets as well.”
Are Volt sales plateauing? General Motors sold 1,607 Volts in May, down 4.3 percent from a year ago. In the first five months of 2013, the company sold only 100 more Volts than during the same period last year.
It's also quickly losing ground to the Nissan Leaf, which has delivered 7,614 units so far in 2013. The growing spread might reflect the difference in the two cars' costs. With a price tag of about $28,000, the Leaf has significantly undercut the roughly $40,000 Volt.
"The Leaf has benefited from its rock bottom lease offer of $199 per month," wrote Alec Gutierrez, senior market analyst for Kelley Blue Book, in an e-mail. "We believe that lease offers will continue to play a strong role in sales of EVs due to their high price point.... The Volt is a more practical car for day-to-day use, and all things considered equal, it would likely outsell the Leaf if given a similar lease payment."
Tesla Motors makes headlines. The luxury electric carmaker does not release monthly sales figures, but posted its first profit and 4,900 Model S sales in the first quarter of the year. That makes it a strong contender in the electric-car market.
The company grabbed headlines in May when it repaid a $465 million federal loan nine years ahead of schedule. That helped boost the image of clean energy, marred by Solyndra, Fisker Automotive, and other high-profile, government-backed flops. Its stock price surged on the news and CEO Elon Musk has promised more big announcements are on the way.
Better Place bites the dust. At the other end of the electric-car spectrum is Better Place, the Israeli battery-swapping company that declared bankruptcy last week. The company made a big gamble on providing electric car infrastructure in an attempt to ease consumers' range anxiety. But it may have been a bit too early in the evolution of the electric car market.
"It was kind of at level five before we even got to level one," said Ms. Caldwell of Edmunds.com.