Electric Car Sales to Double in 2013

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Sales of plug-in electric and hybrid cars in the U.S. basically tripled in 2012, from little over 17,000 cars to little over 50,000 cars. I am counting both pure electric cars ( Tesla ( TSLA), Nissan LEAF, etc.) and plug-in hybrids ( Chevrolet Volt, Ford ( F) C-Max Energi, etc.) here, as I believe this is the relevant measurement in the market at the moment.

The 2012 best-seller in the U.S. market was the Chevrolet Volt, which sold little over 23,000 cars (plus some 7,000 units abroad, for those who are counting). The Toyota ( TM) Prius plug-in came in second at 13,000 cars, and the Nissan LEAF third at 10,000. Those three cars at 46,000 total were close to 90% of the plug-in electric market. At 2,374 cars starting late in the year, the Ford C-Max Energi was the bulk of the balance, at least if we don't count the Tesla Model S, which hasn't reported numbers yet, but where the final number was likely just above 3,000.

What can we expect for 2013? Let's take these cars one by one, and then tally up an estimate.

First, the Chevrolet Volt. The 2012 sales leader -- by a wide margin -- has a huge swing factor ahead for 2013. There appears to be no model change in store for the year, so a major threat to 2013 sales would arrive if details of a 2014 or 2015 Volt hit the market. Furthermore, GM ( GM) surely is counting on sales abroad to increase dramatically from the 7,000 level in 2012.

GM will surely pull out all the stops to ensure that the 2013 U.S. sales level does not fall below the 2012 level. The customer satisfaction is there, with the Volt having the highest such of any car in the market for two years straight. On the upside, the sky is the limit. I think a conservative estimate is 30,000 units, but it could just as well turn out to be 40,000 or even 50,000, especially if gasoline prices go over $4 per gallon again.

In the third quarter of 2013, deliveries of the Chevrolet Spark EV begin. At this point we should not assume significant sales, perhaps 3,000 for all of 2013.

Toyota Prius Plug-In: This car is the "lightest" of any plug-in hybrid, in the sense that it has the smallest battery and perhaps the weakest electric motor, yielding the shorted EV range. The price, adjusted for taxes and other discounts, is still relatively similar to the Ford C-Max and the Chevrolet Volt, so the Toyota is selling on the excellent Prius reputation and Toyota's strong reputation in general. I think we can assume that at a bare minimum, it will sustain sales of 1,000 cars per month, or 12,000 for all of 2013.

Toyota also sells the RAV4 EV, which was co-engineered with Tesla. Only 2,600 will be made, and sales in late 2012 was off to a very slow start. Toyota will likely find some incentive to sell at least 1,000 of these in 2013.

Nissan LEAF: As with the Volt, the swing factor here is huge. Production of the much-improved 2013 model has just begun, and U.S. deliveries should begin by March. There is good reason to believe that sales will be above 1,000 per month after that. For all of 2013, I am assuming 18,000 units sold.

Ford: Three models are in the market, and the Focus Electric is unlikely to sell more than a couple of hundred per month. I am assuming 2,000 for the year. The C-Max and Fusion Energi models, however, are proving more popular. Their highly praised styling and silent operation are lauded by testers, and I think we can safely assume Ford will sell at least 1,000 of each, per month.

Tesla: The official plan is to sell 20,000 for the year, but demand is running ahead of the goal, so it should not be a problem for Tesla to sell 25,000 in 2013. Deposits supposedly exceed 18,000 already.

Honda: The plug-in hybrid Accord started sales just weeks ago, and it is difficult to estimate where this will go in 2013. To be conservative, I am assuming 500 per month, so 6,000 for the year. The all-electric Fit should also see a total of 500 in sales -- for the year.

Mitsubishi: Sales of the widely panned i-MiEV has been abysmal at under 100 cars per month. This is unlikely to change.

Fiat: Sales of the 500 Electric start later in the year. I think we can hope for 1,000 cars for the whole year.

BMW: Sales of the i3 begin late in the fourth quarter, and it's possible that BMW can sell as many as 2,000 right away before the year ends.

So let's add this up for 2013:

Chevrolet Volt: 30,000

Chevrolet Spark: 3,000

Toyota Prius Plug-In: 12,000

Toyota RAV4 EV: 1,000

Nissan LEAF: 18,000

Ford Focus Electric: 2,000

Ford C-Max Energi: 12,000

Ford Fusion Energi: 12,000

Tesla Model S: 25,000

Honda Accord Hybrid: 6,000

Honda Fit Electric: 500

Mitsubishi i-MiEV: 500

Fiat 500 Electric: 1,000

BMW i3: 2,000

TOTAL estimate for 2013: 125,000

The total U.S. car market for 2013 is estimated at around 16 million. Therefore, the electric plug-in market would be 0.78% of the unit volume. Of course, as a percentage of revenue, the number would be higher, likely at 1% or more.

The average car today sells for approximately $30,000, but the average MSRP of these cars is of course much higher.

125,000 cars in 2013 would be more than double the little over 50,000 sold in 2012 and still a healthy growth rate over the 17,500 or so sold in 2011. Many people tend to still dismiss the electric car market, especially those who have never driven one. But this growth rate is strong.

This 2013 estimate does not assume a spike in gasoline prices, or any dramatic increase in public charging stations. Any incremental tilt in terms of those two factors would likely push sales higher than my 125,000 estimate for 2013.

Then, in 2014, the market comes more into full bloom. In 2014, the BMW i3 will be shipping for a full year, the Tesla Model X starts shipping, the Cadillac ELR, the Infiniti LE, the Mitsubishi Outlander, the Mercedes B-Class and perhaps most importantly a slew of models from VW and Audi start hitting the market.

Whatever the number will be in 2013, it will be a lot higher than it was in 2012, and in 2014 it will be higher still. I can guarantee it.

2011: 17,500 units.

2012: 50,500 units.

2013: 125,000 units.

Those are the approximate numbers in this data series of plug-in electric car sales.

At the time of publication the author had no position in any of the stocks mentioned.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

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