Sales of plug-in cars are on the up, despite falling oil prices.

Nissan LEAF or BMW i3? Which Electric Car Sold More During the First Seven Months of Sales?

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.

Nissan LEAF sales may be healthy now -- but how do they compare in the first seven months of LEAF sales with the BMW i3?

Nissan LEAF sales may be healthy now — but how do they compare in the first seven months of LEAF sales with the BMW i3?

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. 

LEAF sales didn't really take off until 2013, when Nissan moved production to regional factories.

LEAF sales didn’t really take off until 2013, when Nissan moved production to regional factories.

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.

The BMW i3 didn't sell as many cars during the first seven months of global sales as the Nissan LEAF in its first seven months.

The BMW i3 didn’t sell as many cars during the first seven months of global sales as the Nissan LEAF in its first seven months.

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.

Tortoise, Hare?

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.

Nissan LEAF sales increased after manufacture was split between three factories around the world.

Nissan LEAF sales increased after manufacture was split between three factories around the world.

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.

Different markets

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.

Remember: premium and luxury cars always sell in fewer numbers than mainstream cars.

Remember: premium and luxury cars always sell in fewer numbers than mainstream cars.

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.

Different attitude

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.

Was BMW's marketing strategy to blame?

Was BMW’s marketing strategy to blame?

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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  • u010eakujem

    A superbly written article, but it doesn’t ask the main (albeit subjective) question for me: for the money, which is “worth” more? nBy worth I mean more than gadgets and leather seats, but instead which has more street credibility as a reliable family car, which brand appears more accessible – and something that’s in-cred-ib-ly important but it often overlooked due to it’s subjectivity – which has more which has more sex appeal and visual attraction? nIn my worthless opinion, the LEAF is the outright winner out of the two, with loads more X factor for the dollar. nIf only the i3 looked like a BMW… It could be flying out of the dealer lots… Sigh.

    • npooty

      You’re asking a very subjective and regional question. In certain regions where the Leaf is not subsidized, a comparably equipped Leafs costs almost as much as the i3. If you read the reviews from those countries, they say get the i3.nnA Japanese car will almost always get more street credibility as being the more reliable family car. But I don’t think “family car” and “sex appeal” really go with each other. Of the people I talked to, the Leaf is considered ugly and women especially refuse to own one. The i3 definitely scores highest on the sex appeal from my interaction with people. Actually, the Fiat 500e takes the cake for overall sex appeal and visual attraction in my opinion.

  • CDspeed

    Volume wise Nissan sells more cars, luxury brands just don’t produce as much. The price of luxury cars alone naturally means they’re not for the masses like a Nissan is.

    • William Cervini

      So the BMW i3 is a “luxury car”? C’mon, it’s just another feeble effort by the Germans to challenge the Japanese. Sorry, the BMW looks like a loser.

      • CDspeed

        I’ve driven both, and it’s obvious the i3 is a premium car. I’m not saying it’s perfect, it is BMW’s first mass-market attempt at an electric car, the most important thing about it is the carbon fiber passenger cell. So far lightweight construction like this has been something only seen on super cars. The i3 is BMW’s starting point, it gets the ball rolling toward carbon fiber passenger cars, and will help an automotive giant start down the path toward the electric future. It isn’t a loser, the race has only just begun.

  • Esl1999 .

    Leaf is more mainstream friendly. The i3 is a little too quirky and less wallet friendly.

  • Dennis Pascual

    I finally got a chance to drive my built to order Electronaut Edition this past Sunday. As much as I like the car, the percentage chance of me “closing” this deal is less than the 5% when I went in.nnnThe over five month wait in between turning in my Active E and delivery of the i3 has made me more accustomed to driving the Model S on a daily basis that I don’t really see the need to swap out. Additionally, there are a lot of things that were dropped off the first year’s model that was available during the test drives of the i3, Sunroof, etc.nnnLastly, a few of the things that I did order on my configuration never made it to the actual delivered vehicle. I’m now seeing if there is anyone else in my family that is willing to take this order over, otherwise, I will be releasing the car to the dealership to sell to anyone that is willing to buy it.

  • npooty

    The idea behind the article is pretty good, but the execution is poor.nnnnThe first 7 months of Leaf sales included Japan and USA from the start, which are two of the largest hybrid and plug-in markets. The first 7 months of i3 sales included less than 1 month of US sales. I don’t think the i3 is even on sale in Japan yet. Same goes for the “first two quarters of 2014” because US sales really only contributed about 1 month. nnnThe best way to do this type of time frame comparison with any car is to tabulate sales for the first 7 months from when it started in each market, then add the sum.nnnRegardless, the Leaf will sell more anyway.

  • The i3 has only been on sale in US for just 3 months. So far the i3 sales per month are ahead of the LEAF in number, but will the i3 step up the pace for months 5-9, when Nissan averaged over 1000 per month? nnOf note is the market in 2011 was much different than now (2014) u2026 10k’s of PEV sold per year vs. 100k’s, u2026 couple models to choose from vs. 20+ models. Over the next few months, we’ll see how i3 sales continue to ramp up in the US.nnUS Monthly Sales Comparison:nu2026u2026 i3 months 1-3: 336, 358, 363, __, __, u2026 !?!nLEAF months 1-9: 87, 67, 289, 573, 1142, 1708, 931, 1362, 1031

    • Scott Kennelly

      How much marketing is BMW doing? Nissan marketed the Leaf a lot, even though it was like the only main-stream manufacturer of an electric car, when the Leaf was launched. Today there is lots of competition to the BMW. How is the i3 supposed to compete, now that there are so many electric car options? Yes, electric cars are more excepted now . . . but with so man early-adopters already driving electric cars, and almost nobody with a BMW electric car yet, we should expect abysmal sales. I think BMW knows this, and is probably treating the i3 as an experiment more than anything else. They will upgrade it for next year or the year after, and maybe they will make an i5 after that . . . in an effort to compete with Tesla. They have to do SOMETHING, or Tesla will eat their lunch for them. The Tesla range is in direct competition with BMW. It has the same sex appeal and sits at the same price point. As Tesla continues to expand their line, BMW will see shrinking sales as a result, if they don’t produce a better, electric product. They’re afraid to make a more complicated and less-reliable extended range electric or plug-in hybrid, because that would eat their profit margin. They are screwed if they don’t make a full range of good electric cars . . . now.

  • dicty2 .

    I can’t see any electric car selling in significant numbers until there are enough rapid charging stations around to remove the nagging doubt ‘what do I do if..’ Meanwhile for my money Toyota has it exactly right with the new Yaris hybrid looking like an excellent fit to the realities of present day motoring. Not sure if it’s sold in the US?

    • Scott Kennelly

      There are more than 15,000 high-speed charging stations around the U.S. That’s not enough for you? There are more high-speed chargers than McDonald’s restaurants. How’s that for “enough?” Hybrids are silly, because they are expensive to make and unreliable in comparison to an all-electric car. Extended range electrics, with 100 mile all-electric range, could be the best solution for those with range anxiety. The Fisker Karma was such a car, but at a much higher price point than is practical for most customers. It will be very interesting if the Fisker Karma is made again in 2015, because if it is made in China, it will probably sell for 30% to 50% less money, making it competitive with Tesla. Still, it is not as fast and will surely be less reliable. Besides, the Tesla has a VERY long range, taking away most range anxiety. And now Tesla has had time to build up their supercharger network to more than 100 charging stations across the country. Soon that will be more than 200. Given the fact that Tesla has been doing what they said they would, to reduce range anxiety, by installing supercharger stations all over the U.S. and even in Canada, it will be very difficult for the Karma to compete with original specs. If they increase the power and all-electric range, while reducing the cost, it might be competitive, but as things are now, it is going to be a long, hard road. It is certainly a very good looking car, and it has a nice, comfortable, quiet ride. I haven’t been in a Tesla S, but my ride in a Karma convinced me that it is a car worth buying, if you’re the type who has plenty of money, drives a lot, and hates the idea of having to wait to charge your car, but you want to drive an electric car.

      • Scott Kennelly

        If I were directing the installation of superchargers for Tesla, I would build a couple dozen more up through Canada, including routes to Winnipeg and Ontario, as well as a route from Seattle to Anchorage, in Alaska, and I would build a network of superchargers down to Mexico city and even all the way to Cancun. There are plenty of buyers in Mexico (thousands) who would pay for the installation of the chargers down there by paying a premium of $1,000 each car. The first 10,000 Tesla cars sold in Mexico could be sold with that premium included in the price, as a method of paying for the superchargers. The bragging rights that Tesla offers complete coverage of the North American continent would be impressive and sell enough extra cars that the extra 50 or so superchargers would pay for themselves.

    • Martin Lacey

      I agree – folks think they need to have charging stations on every street corner. I read a recent report that said that a very high percentage of BEV and hybrid owners make do with charging at home. It’s just those longer trips that charging stations are required.

  • Sledge

    Two weeks ago I finally placed my order for an i3 REx, after test driving literally all of the other full electrics and plug-in hybrids presently for sale in the US. In my view the Leaf and the i3 are directed to two completely different markets. The i3 seriously outperforms the Leaf and has a luxury interior. The Leaf is more family-friendly with full size rear doors and larger back seats, and is also easier on the pocketbook. The bottom line for me was that the Leaf felt like an entry-level automobile in both handling and interior styling/materials. If my wife didn’t like the i3 I was going to go diesel instead…. for me there were no other choices that cost less than a Tesla. The Leaf and i3 are both excellent cars, though. They’re just directed to different types of buyers. (“Gimme a car that will save me time and money while commuting” vs. “Gimme an eco-conscious car that is also a top choice fun-ride from outta my garage”).

  • Scott Kennelly

    Huh? Why would BMW dealers sell electric cars that don’t break down? They have a vested interest in seeing the electric cars fail. This problem is why Elon Musk does not want to try selling cars through an independent dealer network. The dealerships would fail, because they would not make enough money through service work. The Nissan Leaf is something special, and frankly I can’t imagine Nissan is making much money with it. Interestingly, even after years of selling electric cars, there are not three new electric models in the Nissan lineup. I don’t expect to see a lot of new electric models from Nissan either. Tesla and Tata will be the winners of the electric car revolution . . . simply because the big companies can’t make the transition without destroying their own market. What GM and Toyota and Ford SHOULD do is create new companies, like GM did with Saturn. Those companies can be directly competitive with Tesla. They should make low-end companies to compete with Tata, in an attempt to prevent Tata from gaining much ground. The problem is that the new companies will have to build reputations, just like Tata, and they don’t have a head start now, because they don’t exist yet. The big companies have already dropped the ball.

  • Martin Lacey

    Nissan had first to market advantage. BMW is competing in a much busier marketplace. The Leaf was visually striking making a statement, but as the market has matured folks increasing don’t want to stand out. The rear doors on the i3 are like marmite – you either love them or hate them.

    I think that both companies will be a little more mainstream in their next gen models.

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