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TheStreet Open House

After the Volt? The Chevy Spark

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Over 17,000 plug-in electric cars were sold in the U.S. in 2011, the first year of any plug-in electric car sales worth talking about. My optimistic estimate for 2012 that I published here in early January was 130,000, but a nice round 100,000 is probably more realistic.

At somewhere close to 100,000 units for the U.S. market alone, the plug-in electric car market would be two-thirds of 1% of the entire U.S. car market, which is estimated to approach 15 million units this year. Some will look at that and say "at or just below 1% is peanuts."

Chevrolet Volt

Other people will look at that and say "In 2007, the iPhone was also at or below 1% of the global cell phone market." And now, a few short years later, are people laughing at the Apple iPhone? Um, maybe not.

While 2012 will be a very strong growth year for plug-in electric cars, 2013 to 2015 should be dramatically stronger. One car that will contribute nicely to unit growth volumes will likely be the Chevrolet Spark Electric, to be launched some time around April 2013, plus or minus a couple of months.

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In order to understand the Chevrolet Spark, you have to understand how it differs from the Volt. The Volt, which has now sold approximately 10,000 units in the U.S. and where European sales just started this week, is a "zero-compromise" performance car that competes mostly with cars that are much more expensive.

The Chevy Volt drives 25 to 50 miles on pure electric power, after which a gasoline generator kicks in to take you are far as any regular gasoline car -- until you have the time and opportunity to plug in the Volt again. In the Volt, you can take that 600-mile road trip to Vegas in the comfort equivalent to a $90,000 Porsche Panamera, but achieve the fuel economy not too far behind a Toyota Prius, which in its highest-end trim costs almost exactly the same as a Volt.

According to the sales configurator on Toyota.com, a loaded Prius plug-in costs $39,525, compared to a loaded Chevrolet Volt at $44,575. Then adjust for a $5,000 difference in the federal tax credit in the Volt's favor, and you're left with almost the same price.

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