|FOR those who advocate the electrification of the automobile, it has been a good year. No fewer than eight significant plug-in models came to market in the United States in 2012.
Thatís progress, but even if the absolute number was modest, the heft of the companies behind them could not be ignored: battery-electric and plug-in hybrid cars arrived from BMW and Honda, while Ford and Toyota each released two. Tesla and Coda, California-based electric specialists, offered sedans with starkly different levels of appeal.
So it may be tempting to declare 2012 the year of the electric car ó at least until you consider that many of these debuts were for limited production runs of a couple of thousand vehicles. When the yearís final sales figures are reported, cars with plugs will still represent only about one-third of 1 percent of the new-car market.
Public charging stations continue to sprout in forward-thinking communities, but there was little headway toward standardizing plugs for the fast-charging systems that would help to neutralize public resistance to E.V.ís.
Despite their small share of overall sales, plug-in cars seem to have established a beachhead this year, regardless of the ups and downs revealed in the yearís electric car headlines.
TESLA MODEL S In January, Franz von Holzhausen, design chief at Tesla Motors, promised that the first car designed and produced entirely by the start-up, the Model S, would not only be a good E.V. but ďthe best sedan on the planet.Ē
At the time, auto reviewers mostly dismissed the words as more Silicon Valley braggadocio. But once they drove the car, many who had been Tesla doubters became E.V. believers. Automobile magazine and Motor Trend each named the Model S its car of the year.
In my review of the Model S in these pages, I said the all-electric luxury sport sedan was simultaneously stylish, efficient, roomy, high-tech and very fast. Together with its Aston Martin handsomeness, the performance of the newest Tesla overturned perceptions about electric-car compromises. For example, the range of the 85-kilowatt-hour model, which starts at $79,350 ($81,850 starting Jan. 1), is rated by the E.P.A. at 265 miles per charge.
The companyís innovations in 2012 included the opening of a proprietary rapid-charging network. Owners of appropriately equipped Model S sedans will be able to make long trips using so-called supercharging stations placed along routes connecting San Francisco, Lake Tahoe, Los Angeles and Las Vegas ó and Tesla provides the electricity free. The system goes nationwide in 2013, starting along the Boston-to-Washington corridor.
Tesla says it will deliver about 2,500 Model S sedans this year; its goal had been 5,000. The ambitious target for 2013 is 20,000 cars. The Model S is an impressive achievement, bringing a measure of credibility to Teslaís plans for revolutionizing transportation in the 21st century.
NISSAN LEAF WILTS Tesla was not the only company that failed to meet E.V. sales goals in 2012. Nissan struggled to find customers for its all-electric Leaf compact. But even with tepid sales in the first few months of the year, Carlos Ghosn, Nissanís chief executive and one of the auto industryís most outspoken E.V. proponents, stood firm: ďI am not changing my bullish approach,Ē he told reporters at the New York auto show in April.
The companyís goal was to sell 20,000 Leafs in 2012, but through November just 8,330 had left showrooms, a drop of 4.5 percent below the year-earlier results. Discounted leases didnít help, nor did reports that Leaf owners in Arizona suffered a loss of battery capacity in the blistering summer heat. In mid-November, Mr. Ghosn admitted that the earlier sales targets would not be achieved.
PLUG-IN HYBRIDS RISE Contributing to the Nissan Leafís disappointing sales was the carís real-world range of about 80 miles on a single charge.
The solution for a growing number of motorists who want to power zero-emission cars with cheap electric fuel ó but without the constraints of todayís batteries ó is the plug-in hybrid. Unlike the Leaf, sales of the Chevy Volt and Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid gained steadily as 2012 drew to a close.
These models ó as well as the Ford C-Max Energi, Fisker Karma and the coming Honda Accord Plug-in Hybrid ó run on electricity for distances ranging from 10 to 50 miles. For drivers with short commutes, these plug-in hybrids can go months between visits to a gas station, yet remain capable of long-distance travel when needed. Based on industry forecasts and a growing number of available models, itís logical to conclude that plug-in hybrids will outsell pure E.V.ís in the United States for years to come.
PRIUS GOES MAINSTREAM Toyota added a plug-in version to its growing family of Prius hybrids in 2012. It also added the extra-capacity Prius V wagon and the subcompact Prius C, rated at 53 m.p.g. in city driving. Prius is now the No. 1 selling line of cars in California.
It took 15 years for the Prius to grow from an avant-garde experiment, to a high-volume product line. In 2012, Toyota will sell more than one million hybrids globally.
START-UPS RUN AGROUND There were other E.V. reality checks in 2012. In October, Shai Agassi, the charismatic founder of Better Place, a company formed to establish networks of E.V. battery-swapping stations, stepped down from his chief executive role. The California-based company had opened quick-swap stations in Israel and Denmark, but is now reassessing its strategy.
Despite the shake-up, Better Place fared better than some electric car start-ups. In January, Ener1, parent of the battery-maker EnerDel, filed for bankruptcy. Two months later, Azure Dynamics, which assembled the electric version of Fordís Transit Connect delivery vehicles, filed for Chapter 11. In October, A123 Systems, one of the most promising United States battery companies and a supplier to Fisker (for the Karma) and G.M. (for the Chevrolet Spark EV), went bankrupt.
54.5 M.P.G. Perhaps the biggest green car story of 2012 was the Obama administrationís new fuel economy standards. On Aug. 28, rules were completed that established a standard of 54.5 miles per gallon as an average of all light-duty cars and trucks by 2025, essentially doubling fuel efficiency compared with todayís vehicles. That target also suggests that within a generation hybrids will be ubiquitous and E.V.ís common, on American roads.