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Mythbusting US green auto sales numbers

The manufacturers spin their sales figures for headlines. The media anoints its darlings and then reports their staggering sales success. Here are some factual observations and some opinion for flavor.


Each quarter the US automakers announce their sales figures in press releases. These make their way through the automotive media and then onto the mainstream media. By the time the news arrives on the TV news, it has been distorted and spun in ways that make the niche sellers seem like big movers, and the actual heavy movers are rarely mentioned. Here are some observations. We will present the factual sales numbers as reported in financial releases, and then comment on why this is unusual. Unless otherwise noted these numbers are US sales. When you read these numbers keep in mind that in a typical year about 12 million cars and light trucks are sold in the US.

The Original Green Machines
Listening to the TV news, scanning the headlines of a national newspaper (other than the WSJ), gives one the impression that electric cars and hybrids are all the rage. Lets’ take a look and see if that is actually the case. Honda brought the US its first hybrid, the Insight. Honda has always offered hybrids since then, and is offering hybrid Civics and other models besides Insight. What percentage of Honda’s US sales are hybrid vehicles? If you guessed 1.5% you are right. We threw the hydrogen fuel cell and electric Hondas into the mix as well. Only 54 total of those so far in 2012.

Ford C-Max Outsells Prius V vs Prius Outsells All Ford Hybrids 3 to 1
Toyota (Toyota Motor Sales) sells over 15 percent of its total vehicles as hybrids. The headlines we read though are that the new Ford C-Max hybrid, which TN has reviewed and written about favorably, has “outsold the Prius V in its first month of sales.” Hmmm. Ford reports it sold 3,182 of the new C-Max vehicles in October and that the Prius V sold about 2,000 units. Hard to dispute that fact, but the Prius is a 3-car family and the “V” is the largest. Here is another fact, the Prius 3-car family sold 16,774 units in October and is on track to sell about 250,000 units in 2012. In October all of Ford’s hybrid vehicle sales were 4,162 units. Toyota crushes Ford in hybrid sales, yet the headline is “Ford C-Max hybrid outsells Prius V.” Toyota is the only automaker operating in America that walks the walk when it comes to selling green cars.

Pickups and Leafs
Nissan sold almost double the number of electric Leafs in October 2012 as it did in the same month last year. The hill of beans is still quite small. About twice as many Volts were sold by Chevy in October. Here is a headline about Chevy you will not hear “Chevy sold 13 times more Silverado pickups than it did Volts in October.” Nissan for its green tally sold 3 more Titans than it did Leafs in October. Do you know what a Titan is? Here is a hint, you could put a Leaf in the back of one and still have room for motorcycle.

Tesla and Fisker
Tesla and Fisker make electric cars for the wealthy and super wealthy, depending upon if it is you filling out the tax returns or your neighbor. This month Tesla made headlines by winning the prestigious Automobile Magazine Automobile of The Year award. Automobile is a magazine respected by the auto enthusiast world and its leader, Jean Jennings doesn’t have to sensationalize anything for anyone if she doesn’t want to. Let’s look at this award and the car. In October Elon Musk told Bloomberg it had delivered 250 Model S sedans to customers so far. October was the company’s fifth month selling the S, so that means it makes, and then sells to customers, about 50 per month. Since its launch the company has said it will not build as many as it had previously announced. Instead it cut its production (note that is not how many it thinks it can actually deliver to customers) from 5,000 down to about 3,200 cars in 2012. Yet the headline is not “Model S production forecast slashed” but rather it is Automobile of the Year.

Burning Up The Sales Charts
In October a row of Fisker Karmas caught fire and burned, or burned and exploded, depending upon which news organization you read. They had been submerged in salty water due to heavy rains in New York City, just like hundreds of other cars were. Since there have been so few Fiskers ever sold (a Director at the company told me personally in September that about 1000 total have ever been handed over to customers) it is a safe bet that more Fiskers caught fire and burned up in October than the company delivered to customers. Commenting on the fires and explosions the company pointed out that the cause of the calamity wasn’t actually the electric drive but rather the 12 volt battery system in the cars. Other green cars such as a plug-in Prius were also reported to have burned up.

It is easy to lose perspective when we hear media reports about green vehicles.

Photo of the Honda Natural Gas vehicle by John Goreham 11-4-12


Fred (not verified)    November 8, 2012 - 6:35PM

What's your point with Tesla & Fisker? "Automobile of the Year" is presumably an award for content, quality, and innovation - not a volume sales award.

I work at a GMC dealership where $60k to $70K "trucks" (large, super deluxe vehicles that just happen to have a vestigial cargo bed) are among the best sellers. There aren't enough super rich to account for the sales volume, so I must assume they are purchased by the modestly wealthy. The stretch to $100K electrics really isn't that far. They obviously do have a market, even if it isn't me.

So the big three aren't very sincere about selling hybrid & electrics. Oooh, big surprize...

John Goreham    November 9, 2012 - 9:03PM

In reply to by Fred (not verified)

I guess the point would be they sell in such small volumes they really are just collector's items. I love them both. Fantastic and very easy on the eyes. It is a wonder that in total only a few thousand have ever been sold. Fisker and Tesla combined. GM and Ford sell that many F-150s Sierras and Silverados every work day.

John Goreham    November 9, 2012 - 9:12PM

In reply to by John Goreham

Not trying to nit pick here but how do you get to $70K with a GMC truck? I started with the most expensive one on the webside, the Denali HD 3500 and added every option on the list. I picked the priciest one when it makes you take one or the other. I come up with $57K. Which is insane. But how do I get to $70K? Are there dealer installed things that do not show up on the configurator? Or if you start with a different base model, do the options cost more and push it up to $70K. If I can configure a $70K GMC I can use that to write an article.

Aaron Turpen    November 10, 2012 - 2:06AM

In reply to by John Goreham

I was going to ask the same. In trucks, if you do the Sierra 3500HD Crew Cab Denali 4WD with all the whistles, you can get up in the $70k range, actually. That's the extreme high end, though. That's throwing in things like CD/DVD/Nav, rear seat entertainment, trailering and plug accessories, snow plow package, and all the rest. All the crap people like having cuz it sounds good, but use maybe twice in the lifetime of the vehicle. lol