Should you drive a 'green' car?

<b>NISSAN STRUGGLES TO TURN A NEW LEAF:</b> Only 989 Nissan Leafs were sold in the US in 2012 far below  the automaker's targets.
<b>NISSAN STRUGGLES TO TURN A NEW LEAF:</b> Only 989 Nissan Leafs were sold in the US in 2012 far below the automaker's targets.
DETROIT, Michigan - The green car market is hobbling along in the USA, hampered by high prices and a limited choice on batteries vehicles. Automakers believe their time will come...

Dave Sergeant, a vehicle analyst with JD Power, said: "Everybody thinks that everybody else should be driving a green car."

Automakers have launched a host of hybrid and battery vehicles in recent years with huge fanfare in response to political pressure from the Obama administration to improve fuel economy but green vehicles are still struggling to find their market.


Electric vehicles and hybrids made up only 3.5% or 500 000 models of total US vehicle sales in 2011.

This is perhaps why they are not a prominent part of the 2013 Detroit auto show, where luxury brands, big bakkies and performance vehicles dominate.

Jesse Toprak, an analyst with, said: "It's getting better every year but there's a very slow adoption rate."

Hybrids have overcome initial fears many consumers had about their reliability yet few are willing to switch to battery or hydrogen fuel-cells.

Sergeant said many drivers believe alternative energy vehicles could leave them stranded on the side of the road if they get too far from a filling station or power socket.

He said: "Consumers are terrified by the range (distance) issue."

"Consumers also tend to have a poor ability to do the math in terms of what they're going to pay and what they're going to save."

Even with big tax breaks, the R264 000 to R354 000 price tag for a plug-in battery Chevy Volt or Nissan Leaf is also off-putting.

Nissan has responded to poor sales of its Leaf by slashing its price on January 14 by (R53 000), which would bring it down to $18 800 (R165 000) in certain US locations.

Sales of the Leaf grew by 1.5% to 989 vehicles in 2012, far below Nissan's target of "doubling sales in the second year in the market".

Global sales rose 20%, way below Nissan's target of a 50% increase.

Nissan-Renault chief Carlos Ghosn said: "It's a disappointment."


General Motors tripled sales of its plug-in Volt to nearly 23 500 in 2012 but remained well below its target of 35 000.

Sergeant said: "Unless petrol prices go up to five or six dollars a (US) gallon we don't see a major shift. There will be a very slow drift towards these vehicles but it's going to be very gradual."

He said US vehicle owners had become accustomed to petrol at around $3.25/gallon (3.785 litres).

Automakers expressed confidence in the green cars on show in Detroit.

Toyota dominates US hybrid sales with its Prius and claimed 70% of sales.

The automaker's US chief Jim Lentz said: "There's no question that, over time, the price of fuel is going to go up. We're confident that our plan to develop hybrids is the right long-term play, as is our foray into extended-range plug-ins."

The Prius is the best-selling car in Japan and achieves US volumes most mainstream brands dream of with a figure of 236 000 in 2012.

Hybrid versions of Toyota's top-selling Camry and Highlander, as well as its luxury Lexus brand, made up 16% of the Japanese automaker's US sales at more than 327 000 in 2012.

Despite an outsized investment in advertising of green cars, which can create a "halo effect" for the whole brand without necessarily leading to sales, Toprak said automakers have not done enough to explain the benefits of hybrids.

Will green cars eventually surpass fossil-fueled rides or is the switch merely a pipe dream for automakers? Email us and we'll publish your thoughts or share your views in our Readers' Comments section.

Follow the Detroit auto show with Wheels24 on our Detroit show section.

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