Hybrid and EV Sales Soared During First Quarter

During the first quarter, U.S. sales of hybrids, plug-in hybrids and all-electric vehicles increased 44 percent, to 113,457 units, compared with the same quarter a year ago.  In March, sales of vehicles in with alternative powertrains were double what they were in January.

For makers of these types of vehicles, the Q1 sales figures go a long way toward validating their steadfast belief in the viability of the segment, despite low demand, cynicism and political bantering.

Hybrids have proven to be the most popular type of alternative powertrain autos with consumers. During the first quarter U.S. consumers purchased 106,207 hybrids.  Plug-in hybrids and all-electric models accounted for a much smaller piece of the pie with only 7,220 units being sold.

Sales of the Toyota Prius, including the new wagon and subcompact models, were up significantly during the first quarter. And sales of the Nissan Leaf all-electric vehicle reached 1,733 units – quadruple the number sold in the first quarter of 2011. March was also a high water sales month for the Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid.

One reason for the improved numbers is undoubtedly the surge in prices at the pump. Nationwide average prices for gasoline and diesel climbed 19 percent during the first quarter, but there is apparently more to it than simple economics. Dramatic increases in fuel prices in the summer of 2008 and spring of 2011 didn’t produce a similar boost in purchases of hybrids and EVs. Most analysts and dealers agree that pent up demand and more affordable pricing are behind the surge in sales.

The Japan earthquake and tsunami in March 2011 hampered production of a number of top-selling hybrid models, including the Prius.

Automotive consultant Alan Baum says, “This year that supply problem has largely been solved, and you’re seeing increased demand on top of it,” and he predicts, “We’re going to see hybrid sales only get stronger in coming months.”

CEO of Northcutt Chevrolet-Buick-Toyota, Leonard Northcutt, sold all seven of the Priuses on his lot in ten day period in March. In the past, it would have taken a month and a half to sell that many Priuses.  Northcutt attributes the brisk sales to higher prices at the pump. He said, “I think some people are saying ‘Uh-oh, I’ve seen this before.’ They already worry that gas prices are headed above $4 so they want to do something before it gets to that point.”

In March, sales of the Toyota Prius reached 27,800 units, up 49 percent from a year earlier. Of those, 4,937 were Prius Vs which launched last fall, and 4,875 were Prius C or plug-in models which launched last month. At $19,710, the Prius C is priced about $4,000 below the regular Prius liftback and gets an estimated 53 mpg/city.

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