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All Electric Cars Are Not The Same: Volt vs. LEAF

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- This is a brief case-study of a successful electric car program -- GM's (GM) Chevrolet Volt -- contrasted with the troubled -- Nissan (NSANY) LEAF.

First of all, before you start penning your hate mail, let's establish my definition of an electric car: A car that has an electric motor and plugs into the wall for battery recharge. Whether there is some other (gasoline) engine in the car or not is of no importance to this discussion.

There are only two electric cars that have sold more than 10,000 units to date in the U.S. The Chevrolet Volt has sold slightly more than 20,000 units, and the Nissan LEAF a slightly fewer than 20,000 units. Both cars have also sold significant quantities outside the U.S., most notably the Nissan LEAF in Japan.

Both the LEAF and the Volt started delivering cars at the same time: December 2010. For the first few 15 months -- through February 2012 -- the LEAF handily out-sold the Volt in the U.S. The main reason was the Volt was ineligible for the California carpool lane. A disproportionately large share of U.S. electric cars are sold in California.

Once the version of the Volt that was eligible for the California carpool lane entered production in February 2012, Volt sales significantly exceeded the LEAF every month starting March. In the U.S., Volt sales have been around 2,000 per month while LEAF sales have been closer to 500.

First, the success story: The Volt

It is true Volt has missed GM's lofty U.S. sales target of 45,000 cars sold this calendar year but the real number looks to be half of that. However, there are three distinct reasons GM should feel very good about the Volt thus far, and be able to proudly declare the model a success:

1. Sales are increasing.

From 2011 to 2012, sales per month rose from around 300 to 1,000 and recently hit 2,000. Sales in 2012 will more than double 2011 sales, from about 7,600 to around 20,000. In other words, while behind the goal, the direction is right.

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