Back in December 2010, Nissan’s unique all-electric LEAF made its first steps onto the global market. Cheered on by some and jeered at by many more, neither the LEAF nor its U.S.-made rival the Chevrolet Volt extended range electric car sold in particularly large numbers during the first year of sales. As a consequence, many electric car skeptics used these low sales figures to claim electric cars weren’t ready for prime time.
Nearly three years later in November 2013, premium brand BMW launched its equally unique all-electric i3 and range-extended i3 REx on the market to a flurry of cheers from hardened petrol heads and electric car fans alike. Many of the same skeptics seem less worried about the BMW i3’s sales prospects than they were about those of the LEAF, but which car actually sold more during the first seven months of its life on the market?
At first glance — at least based on the huge sales hype at time of launch combined with the number of cars delivered during the first few weeks on the market — you’d think that the BMW wins hands down.
Yet when you compare the figures side-by-side, the Nissan LEAF wins by a massive margin, outselling the BMW i3 in the first seven months of its sales in 2011 by 11,598 to just 6,873.
LEAF’s Slow Start
When Nissan delivered its first production LEAF to a customer in California back on December 17, 2010, initial LEAF sales were positively glacial. For the first few weeks, LEAFs were delivered with great pomp and ceremony across the U.S., with lucky ‘first’ owners in various key market launch states. From 12 December 2010 through 31 December 2010, only nineteen LEAFs were delivered in the U.S., with a total of 50 cars being delivered globally before the end of the year.
While the first few months of sales were delayed by the slow, tentative production volumes of Nissan’s Oppama production line and the stifled, media-heavy delivery schedule, Nissan’s LEAF sales were soon faced with a different problem: natural disasters.
When the devastating earthquake and tsunami of March 2011 hit Japan, Nissan’s Oppama production line was saved from any major damage. But while Nissan’s production facility was soon able to reopen, many of its suppliers were less lucky.
With a broken supply chain, Nissan did all it could to continue LEAF production for export markets, yet despite best efforts, subsequent months of global LEAF sales were impacted by the aftermath of that terrible tragedy.
The BMW Sprint
BMW meanwhile, gave its i3 a positively sprinting start. Between the time deliveries first began of the i3 in Germany on November 15 last year and the end of 2013, BMW delivered 1,477 i3 electric cars globally for the year.
Moreover, in the U.S. during the first weekend of deliveries, BMW managed to keep up a tight delivery schedule which put Nissan and Chevrolet’s early electric car delivery schedules to shame. What’s more, BMW made sure the world knew that it had rows of BMW i3 cars waiting dockside to be delivered to waiting customers and that it would do anything it could to expedite delivery.
And it did, pushing BMW i3 EV and i3 REx models to waiting customers as quickly as it could, ensuring that most BMW electronauts — customers who had helped BMW test its electric car technology by taking part in limited-production test fleets of MINI E and BMW ActiveE cars — were able to swap their ActiveE for a brand-new i3 as soon as possible.
Yet as official sales figures released by BMW this week show, BMW only delivered 5,396 i3 cars globally during the first two quarters of 2014, despite deliveries of the BMW i3 EV and BMW i3 REx starting in the U.S. in May.
Based on the rave reviews the BMW i3 has been given by major news outlets, celebrities and advocates alike, we’ll admit we’re a little surprised by just how few BMW i3s were sold globally during the first seven months of i3 sales, especially given Nissan’s early supply problems caused by the Japanese Tsunami of 2011.
Unlike Nissan’s rollout — which seemed painfully slow, BMW’s initial rollout seemed relatively quick and well-organised. Yet the initial rush of deliveries — primarily we suspect due to BMW Electronaut deliveries — seem to have given way to a rather pedestrian sales rate.
Of course, despite a slow start in 2010, sales of the Nissan LEAF really picked up in early 2013, when Nissan moved European and North American production of the 2013 Nissan LEAF from the original Japanese production line to Sunderland UK and Smyrna, Tennessee, respectively.
As well as enabling Nissan to tweak the LEAF to make it more appealing to European and North American buyers, the switch of production also brought about a welcome reduction in price, making the LEAF far more affordable for would-be customers.
As a result, U.S. LEAF sales alone during the first six months of 2014 are more than four times what they were during the same period in 2011.
Before we go any further however, we should note that it’s a little disingenuous to compare Nissan LEAF launch sales to those of the BMW i3 in some ways, since the two cars don’t naturally cross-shop.
The LEAF, for example, is a family-friendly, five-seat, all-electric hatchback. The BMW i3 meanwhile, is a performance-oriented, ultra-futuristic, four seat premium electric city car. On the other hand however, the electric car market today is far more mature than it was back in 2010.
Yet premium cars — however popular — always sell less than more mainstream models. A case in point is Tesla, who sold approximately 2,600 Model S sedans during the first six months of sales. (Because of the way Tesla reports its sales figures, we don’t have seven months from launch, only 2012 sales totals. Since Tesla’s first Model S was delivered on June 1, 2012, that leaves us with a six-month sales total for the luxury plug-in)
We know from anecdotal evidence too, that BMW did lose out to Tesla — and other brands — when it first announced its i3 pricing. Yet according to BMW, which upped production at its Leipzig facility from 70 cars per day to 100 cars per day to cope with a claimed six-month waiting list for the plug-in city car, the i3 is literally walking off dealer lots.
But perhaps the best explanation for the difference between the LEAF and BMW i3 sales figures is the differing attitudes from both companies.
The LEAF, despite being differently powered to the rest of the Nissan family, is sold under the Nissan badge. It is sold alongside other Nissan cars at dealerships, and while it was initially treated by dealers as something strange and unusual, is now a much more accepted part of the wider Nissan brand.
The i3 however, is sold as a sub-brand by BMW. It is distinct and separate from the rest of the BMW family and in fact, is marketed differently too. While Nissan seems to look towards electrification as a future technology for its entire fleet, BMW seems a little less convinced of the future of electric cars, at least for now.
At a corporate level too, there’s far less visible marketing drive compared to Nissan, who uses the LEAF at every possibility as a flagship vehicle for its green endeavours.
Do you agree?
We’ve give you some of the possible reasons for why the BMW i3 isn’t doing as well after seven months of sales as the Nissan LEAF did in its first seven months of sales. But do you agree?
Do you think BMW should do more to promote the i3? Will its luxury brand and high sticker price mean it always sells less than the more affordable LEAF? Or will things change moving forward.
Leave your thoughts, analysis and predictions in the Comments below.
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