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So far, battery cars coming up short

Tyrone Siu / Reuters

Nissan Leaf electric car.

By Paul A. Eisenstein, TheDetroitBureau.com

If the White House hopes to meet its ambitious goal of putting 1.5 million battery cars on the road by mid-decade it better hope that 2011 wasn’t a good indication of what Americans think of electric vehicles.

Add them all up, hybrids, plug-ins and pure battery-electric vehicles, or BEVs, and they accounted for little more than 2% of the U.S. automotive market last year.  Remove conventional gas-electric models, such as the Toyota Prius and Ford Fusion Hybrid, from the equation and more advanced battery vehicles generated barely 20,000 sales.

“I’d say they failed,” proclaims Joe Phillippi, chief analyst with AutoTrends Consulting.

For his part, David Sullivan, of AutoPacific, Inc., isn’t quite ready to go that far, but he sees 2012 as the really critical year.  The limited demand for electric vehicles, so far, has largely been driven by the early adopters, contends Sullivan.  “Now we’ll see if there’s broader consumer demand.”

That’s going to be critical as the industry ramps up battery car production capacity and an assortment of new models charge into showrooms.

While there are a variety of products already on the market, most come from niche manufacturers that barely even register on the sales charts.  Last year brought the introduction of two closely watched mainstream models: the Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid and the Nissan Leaf BEV.

General Motors had declared a goal of selling 10,000 Volts but will likely end the year at around 7,000.  The good news for the maker was that momentum had been building during the final quarter but then Chevy found itself in the uncomfortable position of having to explain why several Volts caught fire weeks after being subjected to federal crash tests.

Though there have been reports that last month’s sales were down sharply, GM spokesman Rob Peterson contends, “December sales are solid – definitely not “down sharply” as reported.”

But there’s no question the timing of the news was bad, coming just as GM was getting ready to boost production to 60,000 for all of 2012, 45,000 of those earmarked for the U.S.  The results of an investigation into the problem by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration could clear Volt — or cause it significant problems if a redesign of its battery pack proves necessary.

Nissan came closer to its 2011 target, though it will likely fall a little short of the 10,000 mark when December sales are revealed later this week.  The maker can explain at least some of that away by pointing to the March 11 Japanese earthquake and tsunami that interrupted production for several months.  But Leaf sales have been slipping for several months, a worrying sign as Nissan prepares to open a new facility in Smyrna, Tennessee capable of churning out 200,000 battery cars annually.

There are a number of reasons why proponents believe American buyers aren’t plugging into battery cars.  For one thing, there’s still a relatively limited range of choices available.  But that won’t be an excuse in 2012.

The options coming to market are broad, ranging from the Fisker Karma, a plug-in sports car, to the Ford Focus Electric.  There are electric minicars, like the new Mitsubishi i, and big SUVs, including the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Mercedes-Benz ML350 that Ohio-based Amp Electric is converting to run on battery power.  There will be mainstream offerings, such as the Toyota RAV-4 Electric, and products from aggressive start-ups, such as Tesla’s new Model S sedan.

The Model S will aim to overcome one of the biggest drawbacks of battery power, offering buyers a choice of a base Model S with a range of 160-miles, or optional 230- or 300-mile battery packs, the latter adding $20,000 to the price tag.  Most other pure BEVs are limited to less than 100 miles per charge.

Even then, they aren’t cheap, battery vehicles saddled by price tags that are thousands – in some cases, tens of thousands – of dollars more than comparable gasoline vehicles.

That might make sense had fuel prices held at the near-record levels seen in early 2011, but gas has dropped sharply since then.  Meanwhile, manufacturers have been making major strides when it comes to the fuel efficiency of conventional, gas-powered vehicles.  In the compact segment where Ford will compete with the Focus Electric, for example, 40 mpg on the highway is the new norm.

Both government bureaucrats and electric vehicle manufacturers, says analyst Sullivan, “aren’t giving consumers credit for being able to do the math.  It just doesn’t make economic sense” to buy an electric vehicle – at least if your primary goal is to save money by reducing your energy bills.

There are, of course, other reasons.  There’s the desire to clean up the air and to curb oil imports, especially from the Mideast.  But whether that can be used to draw more buyers into the market remains to be seen.  Especially in this economy, value is the big motivator, rather than politics and social concerns.

So, the industry will have a big challenge ahead finding ways to lure customers into the showroom and getting them to drive off in a hybrid, plug-in or battery-electric vehicle. The past year certainly didn’t live up to expectations.  So, the coming year will be the big test.

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