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Electric vehicle sales ahead of last year's pace

Sales of both the Chevrolet Volt and the Nissan Leaf both increased in February.

Despite GM’s decision to shut down Volt production for five weeks, starting later this month, capping a raft of adverse publicity, sales of electric vehicles are actually running well ahead of last year’s pace.

Sales of both the Volt and the Nissan Leaf both increased in February. Between them, GM and Nissan sold more than 1,500 battery-based vehicles during February, making it one of the best monthly sales totals ever for the emerging technology. Leaf sales increased 617 percent, year-over-year, while sales of the Volt increased 264 percent, according to the latest sales number from February.

(Despite its recent problems, the Chevy plug-in also reported a 60 percent gain from January, when demand plunged as federal regulators probed potential problems with the Volt battery pack.)

EV sales are still running short of the targets set by Nissan and GM but are expanding and the combination of higher pump prices for gasoline and a stronger economy will lift EV sales, according to a number of industry analysts. In addition, more models are coming to market in the months ahead, and that should boost momentum.

Chrysler Group, for example, has confirmed the Fiat 500 EV will go on sales later this year, as will the Ford Focus Electric, Toyota’s Prius plug-in and RAV4-EV and Honda’s first battery-electric entry. Overall, EV sales could easily double in 2012, by general consensus.

Of course, the question is whether that will be enough to sustain momentum. Until recently, GM had been planning to produce 60,000 plug-in hybrids in 2012, up from about 10,000 last year – with 45,000 of them aimed at the American market.  The maker has not said how the coming shutdown will impact its plans for the full year. But a spokesperson insisted momentum is building despite what GM sees as a temporary setback – in part because an updated version of the Chevrolet Volt will now qualify for the coveted California HOV lane sticker.

(For more on the latest Chevy Volt news, click here.)

Meanwhile, carmakers right across the board are growing more comfortable with the forecasts they’ve made for the overall U.S. market, which show sales growing by double digits across the board. Every major automaker reported sales increases — and while GM lagged with a very modest 1.1 percent gain, it actually exceeded expectations.

Several companies, such as Nissan — with a sales increase of 15.5 percent — as well as the Korean twins, Kia and Hyundai  — set sales record last month .

“Nissan’s momentum throughout the lineup continues to drive our growth,” said Al Castignetti, vice president and general manager, Nissan Division. “Another strong month for Nissan Altima demonstrates that consumers are increasingly turning to Nissan for quality and reliability in the midsize car segment.”

Move Over Prius, Step Aside Leaf?

Even brands such as Mitsubishi and Suzuki , which saw sales dwindle during the recession, posted double-digit sales increases in February which, overall, exceeded even the more optimistic forecasts for the month.

Meanwhile, brands with significant new product launches, such BMW and Mercedes-Benz, reported sales increases of more than 30 percent as more new vehicles made it into dealer showrooms.

Toyota also increased sales in February. For Toyota, not only did the Camry score big, but so did the new Yaris minicar.

“Fuel economy remains top of mind for consumers, and they’re responding to Toyota’s lineup, which is the most fuel efficientin the industry,” said Bob Carter, Toyota Division group vice president and general manager, Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc. “Camry sales continue to surge, and Prius, Yaris and Scion all posted double digit gains in February. We expect that high gas prices will continue to be a top purchase consideration for consumers, which bodes well for Toyota’s continued growth in 2012.”

It should also bode well for battery-based models, according to Carter, whether relatively conventional hybrids such as the new Prius C – the lowest-priced 4-seat gas-electric model on the market – or more advanced offerings such as the RAV-4 EV Toyota plans to bring to market this year.

Significantly, that vehicle was developed in cooperation with California start-up Tesla Motors, which also hopes to go mainstream in mid-2012 with the launch of its own Model S sedan.  Competitor Fisker Motors, is now ramping up production of its own Karma plug-in hybrid sports car, with a more mainstream vehicle, codenamed Project Nina, on the books for a 2013 launch.

Fisker is struggling to renegotiate a $529 million DoE loan, however, leading many observers to wonder if it will make it until then.  A number of other battery-car start-ups have folded after failing to line up necessary financial support, most notably Bright, which pulled the plug last week – (Click here for more)– and Aptera, which powered down late last year.

With a few exceptions it is beginning to look like any real boom in battery power will benefit the traditional automakers rather than the start-ups some proponents had been counting on.

Paul A. Eisenstein contributed to this report.