Toyota Prius soared; all-electric RAV4 sank
In the late 1990s, Toyota Motor Corp. jumped into the game with an all-electric RAV4 SUV in California. At the time, the car was marketed far more heavily than the Prius Hybrid, but the company sold and leased only 1,600 RAV4s while the Prius took off, according to Tom Stricker, vice president of technical and regulatory affairs and energy and environmental research for Toyota Motor North America.
The issues back then were range, lack of infrastructure and cost, even though the RAV4 was competitively priced. "A dozen years later, and those same issues persist," he said.
Toyota, the world's top hybrid maker, sold more than 21,000 Prius Hybrids in August, up 26 percent from July. The company expanded the Prius family this year to include the Prius C, a smaller hybrid for city use; the Prius V, a bigger one with more storage room; and the Prius Plug-In Hybrid.
Toyota is also taking a second chance on the RAV4, which features an electric drivetrain made by Tesla. The new 2012 model will be released in California this fall.
But the few hundred thousand alternative vehicles Toyota sells each year are still a drop in the bucket in the U.S. market of 14 million vehicles.
"At the end of the day, people buy their product based on value and utility for what they need, and while they may be interested and passionate about certain issues like energy security or climate change, very few customers will actually let that altruistic sense drive their purchasing decision," Stricker said.
Falling Leafs and lowered Volts
Nissan, maker of the all-electric Leaf, is arguably the most bullish on electric vehicles. Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn has said 10 percent of sales could be electric vehicles by 2020.
The company is an industry leader, having sold 35,000 Leafs worldwide since it launched in 2010. This year, Nissan will scale up Leaf production at a new manufacturing facility in Tennessee, which should drive costs down over time. The 2012 Leaf starts at $35,200.
But the industry has a long way to go in meeting its targets. Nissan sold 685 Leafs last month, down 50 percent from last year, and looks unlikely to meet its goal to move 20,000 vehicles in the United States this year.
By comparison, the $39,145 Chevrolet Volt, an electric vehicle with gasoline backup, sold a record 2,831 units in August and more than 13,000 so far this year. However, General Motors Co. originally planned to sell 40,000 units in 2012.
"Last month was the best sales month to date. That said, it's a new technology, and I think unfortunately some of the prognostications of some of the folks who wanted the numbers to be higher earlier on have sort of created an expectation that can't be met right away," said Mike Robinson, vice president of sustainability and global regulatory affairs. "Over time, it's going to be successful. We're committed to it."
Next year, GM is rolling out another plug-in hybrid, the Cadillac ELR. It will also launch the 2013 Chevrolet Spark, the company's first all-electric vehicle, which will cost less than $13,000 for a stripped-down version.
Ford and Tesla charge on
Ford Motor Co. is also amping up electrification across its fleet. The company is launching five electrified vehicles this year: the Focus Electric, C-MAX Hybrid, C-MAX Energi plug-in hybrid, Fusion Hybrid and Fusion Energi plug-in hybrid.
By electrifying cars across its existing platform, Ford can make vehicles with different powertrains on the same assembly line. That flexibility allows the company to meet whatever consumer demand may be going forward.
Though Ford got into the game after Toyota, GM and Nissan, Pike Research predicts it will be the top PEV seller as early as 2014.