Green car sales might be preparing for liftoff in 2017

2016 was the third straight year Americans bought fewer hybrids, plug-ins, and diesels than the year before. Yet all signs point to things swinging into positive territory for 2017. And the story may be a uniquely American one.

Last year, green car sales fell about 11 percent from the previous year, to about 446,000 units. We say “about” because Tesla Motors continues to be cagey when it comes to breaking out how many of its electric vehicles were purchased in the US, while South Korea’s Hyundai and its sister company Kia are among those who won’t break out hybrid sales at all.

That said, apples to apples, things were improving by the end of the year, as green car sales had been down more than 23 percent at mid-year. Additionally, 2016’s plug-in sales likely jumped 27 percent to about 130,000 units. Also, Volkswagen’s stop-sale on diesels in November 2015 means that the German automaker’s green car sales are on even footing from here on out.

Granted, the steady decline — green-car sales totaled more than 660,000 units in 2013 — is also mirrored by demand for hybrid standard-bearer the Toyota Prius. Combined sales of the four Prius variants fell 26 percent last year to almost 137,000 units, though late-year sales were helped by the introduction of the newest generation of the Prius Prime Plug-in.

More tellingly, US automakers are making up much of the shortfall. In addition to Tesla’s steady growth (which will receive a jolt when the Model 3 starts sales sometime in late 2017 or 2018), Ford boosted its green-car sales last year by 18 percent, as sales of the Fusion Hybrid and Fusion Energi Plug-in Hybrid surged.

General Motors’ green car sales rose even faster last year, at a 25-percent clip, largely because of the 61 percent jump in sales of the Chevrolet Volt extended-range plug-in. Meanwhile, the Chevrolet Bolt EV moved 579 units in December, its first month of sales. Even the Nissan Leaf, which has had relatively few updates in recent years, was increasing its sales numbers towards year-end, even though total-year demand fell 19 percent from a year earlier.

Whether the other automakers reverse their negative green-car sales trends remains to be seen. For instance, BMW’s i brand of plug-ins had a 31 percent drop in sales last year. And Honda’s green-car sales plunged 39 percent last year, though December sales almost quadrupled year-earlier totals, so stay tuned.