DETROIT -- All-electric vehicles that you plug-in overnight are a tough sell with drivers afraid of becoming stranded with few charging stations in operation across the nation.
Consumers want hybrids that combine gas with battery power, such as the Toyota Prius, or that plug in but have a backup gas tank, such as the Chevrolet Volt.
That sentiment is reflected in the latest market numbers.
Sales of the all-electric Nissan Leaf, which can travel about 75 miles on a single overnight charge, plummeted 69 percent in June from a year earlier. Meanwhile, sales of various models of Toyota Prius hybrids are selling as fast as the automaker can ship them.
The Volt is still not an overwhelming success, but sales for the first half of 2012 more than tripled from a year earlier to 8,817.
"I can't grasp the concept of driving 20 or 30 miles, or whatever the range is on the car, and then having to plug in again," said Dennis Barrera, sales manager at Suburban Toyota in Troy, where the standard Prius hybrid is "still the most asked-about car (among shoppers) walking through the door."
Also factoring in are advances to the tried-and-true gasoline engine, increasing fuel efficiency often at a lower price than the electric alternatives.
Ask anyone who has replaced a 12-year-old pickup, or a 15-year-old SUV with a new version of the same general size. The new engine weighs less. The transmission has more speeds, enabling smoother shifting and wasting less gas.
Turbochargers and fuel injectors get more performance from every drop of petrol. For most people, especially when they're paying less than $4 a gallon, that's good enough.
2015 goal in doubt(AT)
President Barack Obama set a goal of getting 1 million plug-in hybrids and all-electrics on U.S. roads by 2015. The administration pumped billions of dollars in loans and grants into battery technology companies, but now, some of the recipients are sitting on more capacity than the market wants.
Last week, Pike Research of Boulder, Colo., said the president's 1 million plug-ins would not happen before 2018, if then.
"There is little evidence that any … breakthroughs will happen to any significant degree in the next five or six years," Pike Research said in the report. "Those betting on strong early growth curves hoped that battery prices would quickly fall, positive word of mouth would quickly spread or automakers would introduce new models more quickly."
Nissan's cautionary tale(AT)
The Leaf is meeting strong resistance in the showroom.
Sales fell to 3,148 units for the first half of 2012, down from 3,875 a year earlier. In June, the decline accelerated, falling 69 percent, to 535.
Spokeswoman Katherine Zachary said Nissan is transitioning its Leaf sales model from a Web-based, build-to-order system "to more of a traditional dealer-based model."
"This transition is still in process in terms of establishing nationwide distribution, as well as more localized marketing efforts," Zachary said in an email.
Nissan said supply constraints were a factor in Leaf's anemic sales. Until now, all Leafs were imported from Japan. The company is building a new plant in Smyrna, Tenn., that will produce the electric car for the U.S. market when it opens in December.
IHS Automotive analyst Rebecca Lindland said many early adopters of technology like electric cars might have selected other vehicles.
"It's trying to maintain that momentum with people that may not have considered the Leaf that becomes a challenge," she said.
The 2013 Volt's battery allows the $40,000 car to travel up to 38 miles on a charge of electricity. But drivers don't have to stop to recharge because the car's gasoline engine kicks in after the battery is drained, giving the vehicle 380 miles in combined range.
The Volt is gaining modest traction in California, where the low-emission version of the car recently qualified for access to high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) car-pool lanes. About 34 percent of General Motors' Volt sales are in California, said Don Johnson, Chevrolet's U.S. sales chief. But California dealers are getting only about 25 percent of GM's Volt inventory, leading to shortages.
U.S. drivers slow to embrace all-electric vehicles