The headline for a recent Detroit News story has it that the “20,000 sales target [is] unlikely” for the Nissan Leaf. But “unlikely” is probably understating things. It appears as if Nissan won’t get halfway to its 20,000-Leaf target for 2012, nor will it top last year’s mark of 9,679 units sold—which was itself a disappointment.
Thus far in 2012, Nissan has sold 4,228 all-electric Leafs, a decrease of 31.5% compared to the same period last year. Last month, 685 Leaf purchases were made in the U.S., a 50% decline compared to August 2011.
It’s understandable that electric-car sales aren’t exactly booming. This is a niche market, after all, and one that’s very new and unfamiliar to consumers. Even with government incentives, plug-ins are still very expensive compared to gas-powered cars, and all-electric vehicles like the Leaf can’t be used practically for road trips, or any journey of more than 75 miles or so.
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Still, one would expect that even if Leaf sales weren’t going gangbusters, they’d at least not be on the decline. That is, these are the expectations one would have if they believed the Leaf had a decent future ahead of it.
Even when gas prices spiked to nearly $4 per gallon in early 2012, electric car sales struggled. Just 478 Nissan Leafs sold in February, a month when gas prices were soaring around the country, especially so in California—a state where energy-conscious drivers are more inclined to be open to EVs such as the Leaf to begin with.
The other plug-in most often mentioned in the same breath as the Leaf—the Chevy Volt—hasn’t been a runaway hit either. But at least sales are growing. Through the first five months of 2012, Chevy sold 7,000 Volts, which was more than it sold in all of 2011. Sales have remained on the rise since then. In August of 2012, 2,831 Volt purchases were made, an 800% increase over the previous August. For the year thus far, Volt sales totaled nearly 13,500, up 325.5% over the same period in 2011. Granted, unless a miracle occurs, GM won’t hit its projected 2012 sales goal of 45,000 Volts, but at least sales are on the upswing.
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The same can’t be said of the Leaf, and the most obvious reason why is so-called “range anxiety.” That’s the worry drivers have when behind the wheel of a car that could run out of juice when a recharging station is nowhere nearby. Owners of the Volt, which runs on electric and gas power, experience no such anxiety—which is probably one of the reasons they chose a Volt over a Leaf in the first place.
The age of the Leaf, and mass-produced electric cars in general, is still quite young. It’s possible that the Leaf could one day catch on in a substantial way, or that another vehicle that runs purely on electric power could become as commonplace as the Toyota Corolla on roads in the future.
For the time being, though, the idea once passed around that the Leaf would be a “Prius Killer” now sounds laughable. Toyota’s new Plug-in Prius, which is only available in 15 states, is already outselling the Leaf. Toyota sold 1,047 plug-in electric Prius vehicles in August 2012, and a total of 6,082 for the year, compared to 685 and 4,228, respectively, for the Leaf. And the Prius family in general is a giant in the industry, with nearly 250,000 sales in the first quarter of 2012 alone.
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What the numbers seem to be saying is that the Leaf is not only failing to replace the Prius as the fuel-efficient, eco-conscious car of choice, it is also increasingly looking like a flop.
Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.