Plug In Car Roundup: “Real” vs Compliance


Of course compliance vehicle sales are tiny; they’re supposed to be

In May 2012, John Voelcker published a great article where he proposed a “real car” test for BEVs:

  • It’s sold outright to consumers, not only leased; and
  • It will sell at least 5,000 or more a year in the U.S. or reach total global sales of 20,000; and
  • It’s offered outside the ‘California emissions’ states (states that follow California Air Resources Board, or CARB, rules), or will be within 18 months

Basically, these questions attempt to determine if a particular model is financed, marketed, and distributed like regular cars, or if the automaker is imposing artificial limitations.

At the time, John projected that the following car programs were “real”: Nissan LEAF, Mitsubishi ‘i’, Coda Sedan, and Tesla Model S. A little over a year later, only two BEVs have explicitly passed the test, the Nissan LEAF, and Tesla Model S. The Coda is no more. The Mitsubishi hasn’t sold in the numbers needed to qualify.

If we expand John’s criteria to PHEVs, we can add the Chevy Volt and the Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid to the list. Some plug-ins haven’t been in showrooms for a full year yet. Although many consider Ford’s plug-in models to be mostly compliance cars, the Ford C-MAX Energi is selling an average of 540 vehicles, so is on track to sell over 5,000 per year.

The Mitsubishi i-MIEV and the Ford Fusion Energi haven’t made the cut, but not necessarily for lack of trying. Mitsubishi, for example, seems to want to grow their i-MIEV sales, and the car is available for purchase across the nation. (witness the winner of the Plug In America 100K contest last month, who bought an i-MIEV in Alabama) i-MIEV sales may simply be suffering in comparison with the value offered by some of it’s larger battery capacity competition. The Ford Fusion Energi recently earned a five-star safety rating from NHTSA. But at an average of 317 sales per month, it just hasn’t ramped up yet to the 5,000 per year mark.

The Real Cars (by average sales)

Tesla Model S

  • Average monthly sales (last 6 months): 1,675 (estimated)
  • Total sales (through June 2013): 12,650 (estimated)

Top selling plug-in electric car in North America during the first quarter of 2013. 2013 World Green Car of the Year, 2013 Motor Trend Car of the Year, Automobile Magazine’s 2013 Car of the Year, Time Magazine Best 25 Inventions of the Year 2012 award, and Consumer Reports’ top-scoring car ever.

Chevrolet Volt

  • Average monthly sales (last 6 months): 1,643
  • Total sales (through June 2013): 41,313

The world’s best selling plug-in hybrid. 2009 Green Car Vision Award, 2011 Green Car of the Year, 2011 North American Car of the Year, 2011 World Green Car and 2012 European Car of the Year.

Nissan LEAF

  • Average monthly sales (last 6 months): 1,640
  • Total sales (through June 2013): 29,351
  • J.D. Power Predicted Reliability: 3 of 5

The world’s best-selling highway-capable all-electric car ever. 2010 Green Car Vision Award, the 2011 European Car of the Year, the 2011 World Car of the Year, and the 2011 2012 Car of the Year Japan.

Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid

  • Average monthly sales (last 6 months): 702
  • Total sales (through June 2013): 16,964

Sort of a Plug-in “Lite” (battery size is only 4.4 kWh). Toyota announced it wanted to sell 12,000-13,000 Prius plug-in hybrids in the U.S. this year, narrowly exceeding last year’s sales. Initially available in 14 states, but with a national rollout planned for this year. As of June 2013, the world’s third best selling plug-in car.

Ford C-MAX Energi

  • Average monthly sales (last 6 months): 414
  • Total sales (through June 2013): 4,856

The fifth top selling plug-in electric car in the U.S.

The Compliance Cars (by average sales)

Compliance cars are vehicles carmakers build just to satisfy a legislative requirement. Be it company ethos, projected profitability, or whatever reason, certain companies have opted to put out the bare minimum product to meet their obligations. So almost by definition, compliance car programs are low volume. They’re often designed and built expediently (perhaps on the same platform as other models), but due to low-volume production, the cost per car to the automaker is invariably higher.

One might think that these cars may not represent a company’s best efforts. However sometimes we see advanced engineering and quality in these vehicles that show off some real pride in these cars. According to Chad Schwitters, “even the automakers that are openly doing the minimum possible are producing quick conversions that reviewers are calling the best car in the line despite a conversion being a non-optimal way to make any car. The Fit, Smart ED, Fiat 500e and Toyota RAV4-EV have all been praised as the best car in the lineup. That alone should give the compliance automakers reason to rethink the benefits of electric drive. It’s not just about the green.”

Here are some vehicles that arguably could be considered “compliance”, and some notes on a few.

Mitsubishi i-MIEV (6-month average: 147)

Ford Focus Electric (6-month average: 150)

Ford plans to sell 1,600 through mid-2015.

Honda Fit EV (6-month average: 49) (J.D. Power Predicted Reliability: 4 of 5)

Honda did a good thing when it dropped the Fit EV lease price in late May to $259/mo, got rid of the mileage limit, and threw in a free charger. They did a great thing when they decided to share some of these benefits with their existing leasees. They did act a bit surprised, however, when buyers picked the lots clean. Honda apologized, and said that more cars were on their way. But the one thing they didn’t do yet is announce an increase in production. They still only plan to lease 1,100 vehicles over 2 years. That’s 45 cars per month. This unwillingness to adjust production to demand confirms the Fit belongs in the compliance car category. On the upside, the Fit compares favorably with its competitors, and buyers seem generally happy. New buyers seem thrilled at the new price and unlimited miles. But at this rate of production, getting one of these cars is like winning the lottery.

Toyota RAV4 EV (6-month average: 68)

Limited to California. Only 2,600 vehicles planned. DaveinOlyWA can’t even get one in Washington State. Recently discounted by $10K.

Honda Accord PHEV (6-month average: 33)

Based on the new 2013 Accord platform. First car to meet CARB’s SULEV20 standard. (20 mg of combined smog-forming emissions per mile)

Ford Fusion Energi (five-month average: 317)

Smart ED (first two month average: 57)

Called the “best Smart car yet” by Consumer Reports (thanks Chad).

Chevrolet Spark EV (27 sold in first month)

Based on the Chevrolet Spark. Only 5,000 vehicles planned. Limited to California and Oregon.

Fiat 500E (first customers have just started taking delivery this month)

Limited to California. Multi-part rollout will have car available in other CARB states in phase 2. There’s a lot of love out there for this hot Italian number. But hardly anyone has taken delivery of one, and they’re already reportedly “sold out” for 2013. It’s not clear whether Fiat will increase production to satisfy the demand, but based on pretty frank statements from Fiat, it seems unlikely.

The Bad About Compliance Car Programs

  • Automakers bewailing big losses on low-production vehicles
  • Customers needing repairs may need to follow special procedures. For example, only EV-certified Honda dealers are qualified to work on the Fit EV drivetrain.
  • Low sales numbers can paint a misleading picture of the overall plug-in market
  • Compliance cars are usually lease-only, which may not be the best financial choice for the buyer
  • Compliance car programs can allow carmakers to undercut real car prices, hurting their competitors more than they hurt themselves
  • Cars developed just to satisfy a mandate may receive little support from the manufacturer or dealer.
  • When each compliance program eventually expires, it could lead to bad publicity and a public impression of a failure of electrics in general. (thanks, Warren Tighe)

The Good

  • Brand conscious, company-loyal buyers get a model they feel they can buy. They will likely find that they love electric drive, and they can’then go on to advocate that the carmaker get more serious about plug-ins. Early participants in compliance programs can become the most vocal company champions for real car programs.
  • More model choices help build the market. Sometimes buyers find a compliance car is the best choice.
  • Compliance car programs can be a “toe in the water” for carmakers who may decide later to go all in. Their “test” programs may let them identify and fix issues and smooth the transition to the real plug-in program.
  • Compliance cars give drivers and cities the same benefits as “real cars”, cleaner air, cheaper running costs, etc..
  • Most importantly, compliance programs have resulted in more plug-ins on the road, which is after all the intent of the legislation behind them. There are over 6,000 compliance vehicles nationwide from seven carmakers that certainly would not be on the road today were it not for the CARB mandate. And certainly most of the “real” plug-in programs were influenced heavily by the 2009 CARB ZEV Regulation. So we can credit legislation with getting a large number of the more than 100,000 plug-ins onto American roads.

Compliance programs fulfill legislators’ goals of getting cars on the road. But they do so with a few possible drawbacks to the market and to customers.

As for the makers of real plug-in cars, I don’t want to be a Pollyanna. Companies don’t usually act altruistically. Real car manufacturers are in this game to make money. Chevrolet with their “halo” car. Toyota with their HOV-lane commuter. Ford with their “Prius-killer”. Nissan with its Carlos Ghosn epiphany car. And Tesla, of course, with Elon Musk’s bid to reinvent transportation (and the dealership model) entirely.

However, “real” plug-in automakers are to be commended for their vision. Those of us who are interested in seeing a modernization in transportation; we get excited every month when we see the new sales numbers. But it’s not the compliance car columns that excite us. We can usually guess that next month’s Fit EV sales will be similar to this month’s. What we appreciate is the unabashed capitalistic enthusiasm of the real car makers. There is uncapped possibility in the sales of each of these models. We appreciate seeing these companies go after new plug-in drivers with gusto. We hope and expect they will succeed.

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