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Valley dealers see spark for electric cars
Tim Sheehan  |  06-Apr-2011
Valley dealers see spark for electric cars

Posted at 07:32 PM on Saturday, Apr. 02, 2011

By Tim Sheehan / The Fresno Bee

The Toyota Prius hybrid, once viewed as a science experiment for environmentalists, has become a mainstream vehicle in the United States, with the company selling more than a million of the cars nationwide.

There are only a handful of plug-in electric cars on the roads in Fresno and Clovis -- but as gasoline prices tickle $4 a gallon, local dealerships say the vehicles are gaining attention from would-be buyers.

Several small companies have been producing all-electric cars in the U.S., but in such meager numbers that they haven't made much of a dent in the market. That started to change in December when two major nameplates -- Nissan and Chevrolet -- introduced their plug-in battery-powered entries into the U.S. market.

So far, the production and the availability of both the Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt are quite limited.

Fewer than 2,200 have been sold between the two models since they were launched a few months ago.

But advocates for energy efficiency and clean air describe the very existence of the cars -- and consumers' growing interest and acceptance -- as a victory.

Randy Lee’s license plate touts his electric-powered car. Lee made his reservation for the Leaf the first day that Nissan began accepting online reservations a year ago. He got his Leaf from the Clovis store in January.

This is the engine compartment of Randy Lee’s Nissan Leaf. The Leaf is a fully electric car — once a novelty but an option now being considered by many families as a solution to climbing gas prices and pollution. Nissan dealers in Fresno and Clovis have orders pending for Leafs.

  • "Clearly, the first-buyer market is made up of early adopters who are interested in the technology, the greenness of the cars and the coolness of the cars," said Felix Kramer, founder of the Palo Alto-based California Cars Initiative, a nonprofit group that advocates for the development of all-electric and hybrid vehicles.

Nissan announced Friday that it sold 298 Leafs to U.S. buyers in March -- nearly double what it had sold in the previous three months since the all-electric car was launched. And General Motors' Chevrolet dealers sold 608 Chevy Volts last month in the U.S., bringing the total sold since December to 1,536.

Those figures are tiny compared to the two companies' combined U.S. sales of more than 258,000 in March.

But given that neither car was even on the market a few months ago, the growth is encouraging, said Kramer, a Redwood City resident whose family owns both a Nissan Leaf and a Chevy Volt.

"My sense is, for both of these cars, the companies will be able to sell as many as they can produce for months and years," he said.

Both the Leaf and Volt rely entirely on electricity to power their drive trains. Each is charged by plugging a cord from a charger into receptacles on the vehicle. While the Leaf only has its batteries, the Volt has batteries and a gas motor that generates electricity to power the electric motor for longer trips.

Chevrolet and Nissan dealers in the Fresno and Clovis markets say more customers are asking about their plug-in offerings as fuel prices have climbed over the last couple of months.

At Fresno's Michael Chevrolet, general sales manager Bruce Kane said he has only one Chevy Volt for sale on the lot, in addition to a test-drive model that the store cannot sell for at least six months. Not every Chevy dealer in the Valley, he added, has been able to get any Volts to sell.

"We've delivered three or four of them," Kane said Friday.

"The ones we're getting, we're selling."

At both Lithia Nissan in Fresno and Nissan of Clovis, managers say they have orders pending for the Leaf from buyers who have plunked down deposits and are waiting between two and four months for delivery.

"We've seen a noticeable increase in interest because of the gas prices," said Mark Schultz, the general manager at Nissan of Clovis. "We've got eight orders pending, and demand is certainly higher than the supply."

Jeff Bergman, manager of Lithia Nissan, said his store has five orders on hand and several more orders waiting to be accepted by Nissan. Bergman said his store's first Leaf should arrive for one of his customers this month.

"I think it's just like any other car that's new to the market," Bergman said. "There are a few people who have heard about it, they want it and they like it. ... And once more people start seeing them on the street, I think we'll see much more interest in the vehicle."

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