The battle for the top electric vehicle sales title is underway between Toyota’s Prius Prime and GM’s Chevrolet Volt and Bolt.
Excluding the unknown monthly sales for the Tesla Model S and X (sales are only reported on a quarterly basis and globally, not by month or by country), a 3-way battle seems to be emerging for the most popular plug-in vehicle in America. But it is possible in the coming months that the Prius Prime and Bolt may pull ahead of the Volt and be locked in month-to-month battle for the rest of 2017.
While both the Chevrolet Volt and Bolt continue to see strong demand (with sales especially increasing for the Bolt), the plug-in hybrid version of the Toyota Prius (the Prius Prime) has quietly emerged as the top selling EV in America for April and May. Now, for the record, the previous version of the Prius plug-in hybrid, the Prius PHEV, achieved the #1 EV sales ranking in April and November 2012 and October 2013.
Only time will tell if these recent sales numbers for the Prius Prime will hold up. One reason to suspect they might is monthly sales have been in a fairly narrow range since December — from 1,362 to 1,908 units.
What’s Driving Sales of the Toyota Prius Prime?
Some of the key factors likely contributing to the Prime’s strong showing include:
1. Prius upsell: The starting price of the base Prius Prime is less than $2,500 more than the non-plug-in Prius — $27,100 versus $24,685. When you incorporate the potential of a $4,500 federal tax credit, tax credits/rebates in some states, and rebates from many utilities, the decision to opt for the more expensive Prime may be a no brainer for many prospective buyers.
2. Price matters: The starting price of the base Prius Prime is $10,345 less than the base Bolt ($37,495) and $6,995 less than the Volt ($34,095).
3. Range tradeoff: The modest 25 miles of battery range is clearly being offset in the minds of many consumers by the 650 miles of total range and complete lack of range or charger anxiety. And while the Volt PHEV has more than double the battery range at 53 miles, the Prius Prime has 230 more miles of total electric + gas range than the Volt.
4. Brand/Green signaling: As I wrote in “Conspicuous Conservation” — Why Distinctive Electric Vehicles Are Critical To Attracting Early Adopter Buyers,” the original, non-plug-in version of the Prius became synonymous with hybrid cars and signaling to neighbors that you were “green” and cared strongly about the planet. Despite the buzz about the Bolt, the Prius brand’s biggest advantage may be that the Prius brand still holds a dominant position as a green-signaling vehicle. And despite the Prius’ latest design being considered too radical for many consumers, its status as the leading green-signaling vehicle may outweigh the car’s somewhat controversial looks.
5. Quality reputation: As a Toyota, it has a strong reputation of reliability and good quality, perhaps giving it an advantage against the Volt and Bolt, especially in certain markets where Japanese models sell very well.
Comparing the Prius Prime to Bolt: Apples to Apples?
Comparing sales of the Prius Prime with the Bolt is of course not comparing apples to apples on at least three levels:
1. Brand: The Prius brand has been around in the US since 2000. So, while dealers need to educate prospective buyers on the plug-in aspects of the Prime, the core model name is ubiquitous and well known for its green, hybrid tech. On the flip, while the Bolt is an award-winning and much-talked-about car, it is both brand new and for some can be confused with its sister model, the Volt. The Bolt was launched in December, while the improved Prius plug-in reached some markets in November of 2016, but the Prius lineup is older than some pop stars.
2. Availability: This one is unclear, but availability of both the Prius Prime and Bolt may be about similar. As this article from Gas2 reports, while the Prime was supposed to be available to Toyota dealers nationwide, it is apparently not yet available in many states, particularly non-ZEV states.
According to GM’s distribution plan for the Bolt, the car should have been available at dealers in 14 states by May. Those 14 states comprise 76.4% of total PHEV and BEV sales from January to March 2017, according to data from the Auto Alliance ZEV Sales Dashboard.
So, in theory, the Bolt might have sold roughly 2,050 units in May if we project what sales might look like if it was available in all 50 states. This would make the Bolt the #1 selling EV in America (excluding Tesla’s EVs). But with the Prius Prime also apparently in somewhat limited availability, these two EVs would likely be selling at about the same pace.
3. Upsell opportunity: The Chevrolet Bolt EV’s base model price is about $3,000 more than the Volt PHEV, but the models are built on separate platforms and have very different body styles (hatchback/crossover versus sedan). The Bolt also has a higher hurdle to jump for many consumers. Going to a pure BEV from a PHEV takes a bigger leap than going from a regular Prius hybrid to the Prime plug-in version. As such, there is likely a much lower rate of buyers opting for the Bolt when they had walked into the dealer with plans to buy the Volt.
So, what (if any) implications and learnings can we take away from these current and recent sales trends among PHEVs and BEVs in the US? Some are rather obvious, and a few are perhaps less so and likely to be debated among CleanTechnica readers:
Green signaling: Some might argue it is a chicken-and-egg situation, but I believe that there is a direct correlation between the Prius Prime, LEAF, and Volt being at the top of the sales charts and their strong brand positions as green/electric cars. Obviously, range, availability, and price are significant factors, but each of these models has achieved a fairly high level of recognition as a green car among the target market of early-adopting EV buyers. Each model then stands for something and driving one of these is a clear case of conspicuous conservation in many neighborhoods. The Bolt is on the way, but its 238-mile range is its current key contributor to its level of sales.
Brand positioning/clarity: The Ford Fusion Energi and C-MAX Energi are selling well, but fall into the second tier of EV sales. Price and range are key factors, but the cars suffer from a positioning weakness in that the cars don’t stand for anything, but rather multiple things. The Fusion Energi more so than the C-MAX Energi with its 12 different possible model configurations. What is the Fusion: a gas car, a hybrid, or a plug-in hybrid? All 3 of course.
And the C-MAX is both a hybrid and a plug-in hybrid, which is less of an issue, but it never established a strong position as either a hybrid or plug-in hybrid in the mind of consumers. Both the Fusion Energi and C-MAX Energi would sell even better if their models were known only as PHEVs. Of course, most of the Fusion’s 266,000 unit sales in 2016 were from its lower-priced regular gas engine and non-plug-in hybrid versions, so overall, Ford would probably sell only about 10% the number of Fusions it sells today.
However, in 2016, the Ford C-MAX Energi comprised 40% of C-MAX sales, with the hybrid version starting at only $3,000 less than the plug-in hybrid Energi version. Factoring in gas savings and tax, utility incentives, and HOV-lane incentives, the Energi version is clearly a much better deal for many buyers. In this case, eliminating the non-plug-hybrid version and then positioning the Energi version as a clear and direct competitor against the Volt and Prius Prime could vault it up into the tier-one sales neighborhood.
But, you ask, what about the Prius Prime? The Prius brand now stands for multiple model types (regular, C, and V) as well as the plug-in Prime version. And, in fact, sales of the core Prius have been steadily declining for several years.
The Prius Prime both benefits and suffers from Toyota’s brand extension strategy. The Prius brand brings a lot of buyers in the door who may drive off with a Prime instead of the regular hybrid. But if a consumer is shopping for a PHEV, how many may first head to a Chevrolet dealer to check out a Volt?
Availability: The Fiat 500e sold an estimated 665 units in May, while only being available in California and Oregon. The 500e might achieve sales of an estimated 1,200+ if it was available in all 50 states (based on recent sales numbers by state). That would put it ahead of the Ford Fusion Energi and just behind the Nissan LEAF. California is obviously the key, with 50% of EVs sales, but the flip of that is that limited availability means an automaker is cutting their sales short by up to half.
PHEVs: Despite many purist EV advocates’ disdain for plug-in hybrids, they currently play (and for several years to come will play) a key role in moving reticent consumers away from ICE cars and toward BEVs. Perhaps rather than deriding automakers for producing cars that plug in, yet with only 25–50+ miles of range, we should recognize that PHEVs introduce consumers to the benefits of electric cars and increases their comfort with the process of EV charging. While a poor analogy, PHEVs serve a purpose much like training pants for children — moving consumers to the next phase of EVs, and eventually toward being completely gasoline/diesel free.
Battery range chasing: EVs are ushering in a new era of how consumers will buy new cars. Electric cars are more akin to technology and gadget upgrade chasing as you would see with consumers waiting for the latest iPhone. With gas-powered cars, however, there are typically only minor changes or advancements with engines every several years. Most of the “upgrades” tend to be with exterior design and, increasingly, technology advancements inside the car, as well as better safety features.
Several new or improved EVs will be entering the market in the next few years, and most with increases in range year after year because of declining battery prices. As a result, many consumers will hold off on a purchase knowing that another EV with 25 or more miles of range will be on the market a few months later.
This is likely to increase the number of pre-announcements in the future by manufacturers who hope that buyers will decide not to buy a competitor’s EV and instead wait a few or several months for their “next best electric car.”
What Does the Future Hold?
We know with pretty strong certainty that when the Tesla Model 3 hits its production stride, it will leap to the top of the EV sales ranking. But what does that mean for the rest of the top-tier BEV and PHEV models?
No one knows, of course, but I’ll step out on a limb to predict some general scenarios that might occur:
- Scenario 1: Chevy Bolt sales decline significantly to a position below the top PHEVs, including the Volt, Prius Prime, and perhaps even the Fusion Energi.
- Scenario 2: The next-generation LEAF, expected to be launched later this year with perhaps a 200-mile range, goes head-to-head with the Bolt for a second place spot for fully electric cars. Perhaps with aggressive lease rates by Nissan and its historical strong brand position synonymous with BEVs, the LEAF will able to outsell the Bolt.
- Scenario 3: All the buzz and attention around the launch of the Tesla Model 3, the next-generation LEAF, and growing awareness of the Chevrolet Bolt actually increases sales of PHEVs. Consumers who aren’t yet ready to take the plunge on an BEV, become interested in PHEVs and opt for a Prius Prime, Volt or Fusion Energi.
An interesting battle for the top non-Tesla EV sales spot seems to be brewing in the US as the countdown begins toward the launch of the Model 3. Will the Prius Prime and/or Volt plug-in hybrids settle in at the top of the charts? Will it be the Bolt or perhaps even the upcoming LEAF? Or will we see a mix with different models rising to the top each month?
The good news is competition and bragging rights are two of the best motivators for auto executives to take action — let’s hope they are paying attention and start allocating more resources to a future of EVs.
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