Last month, Ford became the first automaker to pace a NASCAR race with an electric vehicle when it sent this Ford Focus Electric to Richmond, Va., for parade lap duties. Meanwhile, Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn defended his plans to sell 20,000 Nissan Leafs this year in the United States, ahead of a new Tennessee factory for them. For all of April, Nissan sold 370 Leafs -- and the pace car Focus Electric did more driving than any customer, as Ford sold zero Focus EVs. Behind those numbers lie two contradictory strategies for future tech, with Nissan playing the hare in the race and Ford the tortoise.
No automotive CEO has committed more to electric cars than Ghosn, who has said he believes EVs will take 10 percent of the market for new cars by 2020, and set a goal for Nissan to sell 1.5 million EVs in total by 2016. He's also battled to explain the early slow sales of the Leaf in the United States, saying between the yen-dollar exchange ratio and limited supply, Nissan simply wasn't meeting demand yet, and wouldn't until production begins in Tennessee later this summer.
But the pace of sales revealed yesterday put the Leaf so far short of its goals that getting to 20,000 for all of 2012 would require a massive ramp-up in sales from here to the end of the year, with just 2,103 sold so far. Take your pick for hurdles Nissan has no control over; the number of buyers who can't charge a vehicle from their homes, the cost of the Leaf, the cost of a dedicated charging station, or the old barriers of relying on a car with a 90-mile range that needs several hours to recharge.
If Nissan's pushing too hard for EV sales, Ford seems to be not pushing at all. In total, Ford has sold all of 12 Focus EVs since December, and executives decline to say when volume sales might begin or even how many cars Ford plans to build, only repeating a line about "meeting market demand with supply." If the demand for $39,200 Focus hatchbacks with 110 miles of range is zero, Ford will apparently not build any. It's strange for any automaker, but especially for Ford, a company that doesn't dabble in low-volume cars; even the $130,000 Ford GT supercar had an unofficial goal of 4,500 copies. The NASCAR race shows that Ford won't wait for actual sales of the Focus to tout its environmental bona fides, and so far the Focus EV looks more like a marketing exercise than a carbuilding one.
Meanwhile, the two mass-market plug-in hybrids on sale -- the Chevrolet Volt and Toyota Prius Plug-In -- had modest but respectable April results, with GM moving 1,462 Volts and Toyota selling 1,654 Priuses with a plug. Maybe the market knows which way it wants the EV race to go.
Other stories this morning:
Chrysler leads auto sales gains boosting U.S. economy: In a mixed month for sales, Chrysler was up 20 percent, while Volkswagen jumped 31 percent in April. GM and Ford both saw sales fall a bit. Total sales hit 1.18 million, up 2 percent. (Bloomberg)
V-6s outsell V-8s in Ford F150 trucks: Ford pickup buyers voted for a V-6 over a V-8 by a 56 percent to 34 percent margin in April, with the EcoBoost V6 accounting for 43 percent of sales. (Mike Levine/Twitter)
Electric vehicles generate buzz in collectors' market: And at the pace they're being built at today, they'll always be a collectors' item. (Wall Street Journal)