Tesla rules the electric roost, but Chevy Bolt shows surge

Nora Naughton
The Detroit News

Correction: Tesla on Wednesday pushed back the quarter in which it would begin producing 5,000 Model 3 sedans per week to the second quarter of 2018. An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the new target quarter.

Tesla Inc. reported sales of 101,312 vehicles in 2017, a 33 percent increase over the previous year, remaining the top seller of all-electric vehicles even as competitors move in.

But August’s nationwide roll-out of the Chevrolet Bolt EV finally delivered Tesla CEO Elon Musk a true competitor, and the numbers show it.

The all-electric Bolt is the first affordable, long-range electric car to reach the mass market. The Michigan-made car posted 23,297 sales in 2017, falling shy of the company’s goal of 30,000 deliveries for the year. It closed 2017 with 3,227 deliveries in December.

In total, GM said it sold 43,893 electric vehicles in 2017.

Tesla only reports quarterly sales rather than the industrywide practice of reporting monthly. The Silicon Valley automaker reported Wednesday a total of 28,870 deliveries in the fourth quarter, including 15,200 Model S sedans, 13,120 Model X crossovers and 1,550 Model 3 sedans.

The Bolt is poised to compete with the mass-market Tesla Model 3 should it overcome continued production delays: the Silicon Valley automaker again delayed its 5,000 unit-per-week output goal from March 2018 to the end of the second quarter. Until then, the Bolt holds the mid-market EV crown. Some of that success likely comes at the expense of the Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid, which saw sales drop 17.7 percent from 2016 to 20,349.

Automakers sold nearly 82,000 all-electric vehicles in the U.S. through October, the most-current data available from industry forecaster IHS Markit. That’s an increase of 30.4 percent from 2016. But the growing segment still only accounts for less than 1 percent of the retail car market in the U.S.

While EV deliveries are increasing steadily, IHS Markit analyst Tom Libby pointed out the model count only increased by one to 23 all-electric models in 2017. Most of the growth was posted by only five models — the Bolt, Ford Focus EV, Nissan Leaf and Tesla’s Model X and Model S. Nissan sold 11,230 of its Leaf EVs in 2017, down nearly 20 percent from the prior year; a new Leaf with a boosted battery range is expected next year.

“We should see electric vehicle sales increase in 2017, but what I’m concerned about when I think about these cars is that we’re just fishing in the same pond,” said Rebecca Lindland, automotive analyst for Kelley Blue Book. “And eventually we need a bigger pond.”

This year may be a turning point for electrics. Edmunds is predicting that EVs will capture more than 4 percent of the retail market, driven mainly by Tesla, though the Bolt and new Leaf are also expected to boost sales.

But Lindland says EV development is growing in response to fuel economy regulations rather than consumer demand, which could cause problems later on. The profitability of the EV market will depend upon the future of car buyer demographics.

“As the demographics of marketplace evolve and we get more millennials into market, they as a whole are just much more comfortable with technology and with electric vehicles,” she said. “That, combined with more models, could be the saving grace for electric vehicle profitability.”