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600% Growth Industry: Electric Cars

Stocks in this article: GM TSLA TM

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- The numbers are in for 2011. Approximately 18,000 high-performance electric cars were sold in the U.S. in 2011. By "high-performance" I mean those electric cars that have a top speed at least 10% above 75 MPH and can accelerate to that kind of speed at least as quickly as the average gasoline/diesel car.

The 2011 electric bestseller was the Nissan (NSANY.PK) LEAF with 9,674 units, followed by the Chevrolet (GM) Volt with 7,671 units. Tesla (TSLA) and Fisker combined delivered fewer than 1,000 cars in the U.S. in 2011.

Chevy Volt
Chevrolet Volt

In all, it is estimated that approximately 13 million cars were delivered to consumers in the U.S. in 2011. This means that high-performance electric cars constituted approximately 0.15% of the total U.S. car market.

Aside from "high performance" electric cars, there are two types of definitions that need to be sorted out, especially as we enter 2012. The first definition is simply the one about "electric car." My way of drawing the line is to say that any car that plugs into a wall outlet qualifies, as long as it is high-performance. This means the Chevrolet Volt, Nissan LEAF and cars from Fisker and Tesla are included.

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Some people will object that Fisker and Chevrolet Volt shold not be called "electric cars" because they also have gasoline engines. I don't think this distinction is very relevant at this stage of the game. A Fisker is rated by the EPA at 32 miles of all-electric range, and the Chevrolet Volt at 37 miles. Both of those cars can perform across the entire performance range of the car -- maximum acceleration up to 100 MPH -- without the gasoline engine turning on, up to those distances (32 miles and 37 miles, respectively). Many people don't even drive more than 30 miles on the average day at all, so they would rarely consume a drop of gasoline during their regular commutes, in those cars.

Shades of Gray

In 2012, at least two cars will enter the market that will muddy these distinctions. Let's start with the Toyota (TM) Prius Plug-In, which is entering production now and should see its first U.S. consumer deliveries no later than March 2012. It has only a small battery -- I think close to 5 kWh, compared to the Nissan LEAF's 24 kWh and the Chevrolet Volt's 16 kWh -- and can therefore only travel approximately 15 miles on a full charge.

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