Nissan Leaf sales slip on icy weather

Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt sales slid in January, rounding out a bad start to 2014 for electric cars. Bitter cold was mostly to blame for a lack of interest in Nissan Leaf, Chevy Volt, and just about every other car on the market.

Thomas B. Shea/Houston Chronicle/AP/File
A Nissan Leaf is displayed at the Houston Auto show. Bad weather battered Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt sales in January.

Winter has a tendency to sap electric car batteries. This January, the extreme cold took its toll on electric car sales too.

Bad weather battered Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt sales in January, making for a chilly start to 2014 for electric cars. But the setback is likely temporary for an industry struggling to gain a significant share of the automotive market. Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt sales should rebound as the temperatures do, and high-end electric carmakers like Tesla Motors continue to expand their reach.

The impact of January's bitter cold wasn't limited to electric cars, however.

"January car sales are the worst month for car sales generally," Karl Brauer, senior analyst with Kelley Blue Book, says in a telephone interview. "People have spent all their money on gifts and holiday travel." Cold plays a factor too, and can hit electric cars especially hard because consumers worry about its impact on battery performance. 

Nissan Leaf January sales were actually up 92 percent over last year, but sales were down month-to-month, falling from 2,520 in December to 1,252 last month. It was a record for January sales, but the lowest sales month for the Nissan Leaf since February 2013. Tax incentives for electric cars may explain the stark differential between December and January sales.

"[M]any [electric vehicle] sales were pulled ahead in December as buyers scrambled to qualify for tax incentives in 2013 rather than wait until early 2015 to enjoy a rebate on a January 2014 purchase," senior green car editor John O'Dell said in an e-mailed statement. 

Nissan's new manufacturing plant in Tennessee helped insulate the company from some of the winter weather's impact, making it one of the few major automakers to post overall gains in January. Total US sales for January 2014 rose 11.8 percent over last year, bucking the general downward trend.

“In spite of challenges posed by mother nature, Nissan continued on a roll in January, marking 10 monthly sales records in the last 11 months,” Fred Diaz, Nissan’s senior vice president for US sales and marketing, parts and service, said in a statement.

Chevy Volt sales were even cooler. Sales of the range-extended electric car dropped 19.5 percent year-over-year from 1,140 in January 2013 to 918 last month. Despite a $5,000 price reduction, the all-electric vehicle has struggled to keep pace with the cheaper Nissan Leaf.

Tesla Motors sold 6,900 units of its luxury Model S electric car in the fourth quarter of 2013 – a new record for the Palo Alto, Calif.-based automaker, which does not publish monthly sales figures. Tesla's highest sales per capita are in Norway, according to the company, suggesting electric cars and cold can coexist. 

Electric cars (including hybrids and plug-in hybrids) made up about 3.8 percent of total car sales in 2013, according to the Electric Drive Transportation Association. Still, total sales of electric vehicles continue to rise, and more major automakers – from Ford to BMW – are expanding their efforts in alternative transportation.  

"Once upon a time, the [Toyota] Prius owned that market," Brauer says. "The electric car market is much more diverse now than it was even three years ago."

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