The auto world loves a horse race. And with a new decade at the starting gate, and Americans buying more than 17 million new-car sales for an unprecedented fifth straight year in 2019, the horsepower in those cars is increasingly fed by electricity. Sales of pure battery EVs — we’ll leave plug-in hybrids out of this — jumped 20 percent, from 210,722 in 2018, to 252,581 in 2019, according to analysts at Motor Intelligence.
That’s the good news. The potentially bad news, unless you’re intimately acquainted with “TSLA” on the NASDAQ exchange, is that about 150,000 of those 253,000 EV sales went to a single car: The Tesla Model 3. Add up the other 16 BEV models that were sold last year, including Tesla’s own Model S, Model X and a pair of obscure fuel-cell electrics from Honda and Hyundai, and you’re looking at an average of about 6,400 sales for each model; sales so paltry they barely register. Wait, is this the electric revolution everyone’s been talking about?
The idea, which I’ve long subscribed to, is that a rising tide of electric popularity would lift all boats. I still believe that, but the rest of those boats had better raise their games, or we’re in for a longer wait than anyone imagined. No matter how you slice or rationalize them, meager sales of non-Tesla EV’s should be worrying for global automakers who are betting the farm on electricity, including Ford and Volkswagen. Another flashing warning is the way sales of Tesla’s own Model X and Model S have tanked. Sure, part of that was Tesla dialing back production to build more Model 3’s. But it also speaks to a finite set of potential customers, ditching previously red-hot Teslas the minute something better comes along. If there’s a single tech takeaway from 2019, it is this: Demand for pure EVs remains limited, and Tesla is largely satisfying it with a single car model. Other automakers are welcome to prove otherwise, but not one has come close. Anyone who expected 2019 to be the tipping point, when Americans switched en masse to alternative-fuel cars, must be sorely disappointed. Americans spent a record $462 billion on new cars and trucks in 2019, according to J.D. Power, an $8.4-billion jump from 2018. Ultimately, very little of that money was spent on EVs, which, despite their 20-percent sales gain, are capturing less than 1.5 percent of the U.S. car market.
Exhibit Y: Tesla’s Model Y SUV may dominate sales, yet still be evidence of a limited EV audience. (Photo: Tesla)
As for the Model 3, it deserves a round of year-end encore applause: 150,000 sales is a remarkable figure for any luxury-priced automobile, let alone a sedan in this SUV-obsessed era. Sales of BMW’s 3-Series sedan and 4-Series coupe continued to plummet in 2019 — to barely 66,000 cars, less than half their record high in 2014 — as the Model 3 replaced the Bimmer as the “gotta-have” ride for status seekers in California and elsewhere. Tesla’s status, I would argue, has become a wicked one-two punch in competitive terms, which partially explains why its market value has soared to past $90 billion, more than General Motors and Ford combined. Tesla is not only viewed as a technology and design leader among automakers, but its owners see their own discerning taste and green values reflected in a brand that makes EV’s and nothing else. Right now, Tesla is Apple, and everyone else is Blackberry, if not a black pit of reliance on fossil fuels. I’m not even sure what traditional automakers can do to flip that script.
For 2019, not one electric newbie scored a genuine showroom hit. Some met disastrous receptions. Eagerly awaited models included the Audi e-Tron, Kia Niro and Hyundai Kona. Audi’s electric SUV fared best with nearly 5,400 sales. But that’s hardly worth a humblebrag, since Tesla moved more than 19,000 copies of its competing Model X, despite the aforementioned production cutbacks. Jaguar’s i-Pace SUV brought sexy looks and surprising utility, but still found fewer than 2,600 takers. Among familiar players, the affordable Chevy Bolt chugged along with 16,400 sales, and the reworked Nissan Leaf with 12,400. But they won’t cause any sleepless nights at the Musk manse.
Audi e-Tron fared best among non-Tesla luxury EVs, yet found fewer than 5,600 buyers. (Photo: Audi)
Downright-embarrassing numbers included just 546 sales for the BEV version of Honda’s Clarity, though Honda did find nearly 11,000 buyers for the Clarity’s winning plug-in hybrid version. The Hyundai Ioniq hatchback, Kona SUV and Kia Niro SUV generated a piddling 1,600, 3,600 and 2,500 sales, respectively. So much for changing the transportation habits of America. I might mention that Ford moved nearly 990,000 copies of its F-Series pickup, or one in every 17 cars sold in America, continuing its streak as the nation’s most popular passenger model.
For some battery-powered models, premium prices — along with consumer concerns over driving range and convenient charging — were surely a factor in tepid sales. The Audi e-Tron starts from nearly $76,000, $6,600 more than its gasoline-powered Q8. For that extra $6,600, buyers get a posh SUV that’s wonderful to drive, but can only cover about 180 miles before it’s time to search for a plug. (The e-Tron’s official range is 204 miles, but the Audi can fall short in real-world driving, and owners also need to leave a buffer to avoid running out of juice). Mercedes pushed back the arrival of the EQS, its own shortish-range electric SUV, by a full year, to 2021. And if I might offer Mercedes humble advice, I’d suggest they boost the EQS’ range to better compete, or not bother bringing it at all.
Mustang Mach-E is the latest would-be challenger to Tesla’s dominance. (Photo: Ford)
And while a short supply has been the fall-back excuse for EV proponents, and never, ever a shortage of demand, the lack of 50-state availability does remain a vexing issue for some models. After first assuring journalists that its Niro would be in showrooms nationwide, Kia is actually only offering it in a handful of coastal states. The Honda Clarity BEV is only sold in two (two!) states, California and Oregon. I’m no marketing genius, but building an EV and then denying it to fans in dozens of states doesn’t seem a winning strategy to lure folks into your electric cars. Those self-defeating strategies also raise familiar suspicions that some automakers still view EV’s as “compliance cars,” build strictly to placate regulators in California and its partner states; and not as models with mainstream potential.
If the news isn’t bad enough for traditional automakers, Tesla plans to begin selling its more-affordable, compact Model Y SUV this summer, months earlier than expected. Elon Musk is convinced that the Model Y will generate more demand than any Tesla yet, largely because it’s an SUV and not a sedan. I concur. But I’d also place my own bet that, as did the Model 3, the Model Y will largely cannibalize sales from other Tesla models; when the Model Y arrives, expect Model 3 sales to tank faster than Harry Houdini. Many industry analysts agree. Even as Tesla dramatically expands its factory capacity, including in China, they expect Tesla’s worldwide sales to remain flat overall in 2020.
Naturally, none of this is stopping other automakers from gearing up the next wave of EV’s in 2020. There’s certainly an intriguing batch of contenders heading to showrooms, including the knockout Porsche Taycan, Volvo’s Polestar 2, BMW iX3 and Volkswagen ID.3. I’m just back from Miami, where I spent a day driving the peppy Mini Cooper SE, the first all-electric Mini. Ford insists that the highest-profile player of all, the Mustang Mach E, is already “sold out” via $500 customer reservations, at least in limited-edition, $61,000 “First Edition” trim. Ford says it has enough battery capacity to build 50,000 Mach E’s in the first full year of production, with the electric SUV slated to reach showrooms late this year.
On paper, the Mustang Mach E looks promising. It’s also another in a long line of supposed “Tesla killers,” “Tesla fighters,” or whichever cage-match locution you prefer. Tell you what, get back to me in 2021, when the Model Y is in the ring, and we’ll see who’s killing who. But the message from 2019 couldn’t be clearer: For most Americans, the only EV worth buying is the one with a Tesla badge.