This post was contributed by Sebastian Blanco, editor in chief of AutoblogGreen. Jim Motavalli is on a month-long assignment.
At first glance, the January sales for the first mainstream plug-in vehicles looks dangerously low. After all, there were just 321 Chevy Volts and 87 Nissan Leaf sold last month, numbers that would spell doom for some vehicles. Big sellers in the auto industry have a few more digits in their sales numbers. For comparison, 20,581 Toyota Camrys were sold in January 2011, and it'll take a long while before plug-in vehicles see those kinds of numbers.
To date, GM has sold a total of 647 Volts (326 were sold in December) while Nissan managed to move 19 Leafs in December for a total of 106 since the car went on sale. The reason we cannot make any sort of long-term predictions about the success of plug-in vehicles based on these early (and low) numbers is because this is an issue of supply and not demand. Both Nissan and GM could be delivering a lot more vehicles if they could only make them faster.
Nissan has a wait-list that's 20,000 people long, and has promised to deliver a vehicle to everyone on the list by the end of the summer. There are also reports that GM is trying to boost production, going from 25,000 this year to 120,000 in 2012. Maybe, once that happens and Volts are readily available, that's when we can start to determine if the monthly sales totals show real demand for plug-in cars or not. Of course by then, we should also see the market packed with competitors like the Tesla Model S sedan, the Toyota Prius Plug-In and the Ford Focus Electric. Whatever the sales numbers are now, automakers certainly are getting ready to sell a lot of these vehicles as soon as they're ready.
Of course, the real issue here isn't how many plug-in electric vehicles are sold right now. The early adopters are waiting to snap them up as soon as they're available. What matters is how desirable these vehicles are to "normal" people — the ones buying Camrys at a rate of about 663 a day — and if the manufacturers can get the price down to appeal to them. Right now, the Volt has an MSRP of $41,000 while the Leaf rings in at $32,780 (both qualify for a $7,500 federal tax credit).
At what price do these vehicles start to interest you?