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U.S. Motorists Aren't Charged Up About Battery Cars

That's not great news for Mother Nature on Earth Day.
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/ Source: NBC News

There’s an array of new options for motorists looking for eco-friendly alternatives, whether they’re in the market for a no-frills hybrid, a long-range battery-electric vehicle or a luxurious plug-in hybrid that balances performance and fuel-economy.

Despite these environmentally friendly options, Americans haven’t been racing to trade in their gas-guzzling SUVs and muscle cars, according to auto buying site Edmunds. If anything, many EV and hybrid owners are trading in their autos for utes and other conventionally powered vehicles. That’s not great news for Mother Nature on Earth Day.

"For better or worse, it looks like many hybrid and EV owners are driven more by financial motives rather than a responsibility to the environment," says Director of Industry Analysis Jessica Caldwell.

On the plus side, sales of plug-based vehicles – which include pure battery-electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles – topped 100,000 for the first time in 2014. (according to whom?) But even before the new year began, momentum started to slip.

"For better or worse, it looks like many hybrid and EV owners are driven more by financial motives rather than a responsibility to the environment."

U.S. sales of the Toyota Prius, the world’s most popular conventional hybrid, have tumbled 7.7 percent this year, according to data tracking service Autodata, and demand for the plug-in version is off 61.4 percent. Demand for the Nissan Leaf, the best-selling pure battery-electric vehicle, tumbled 27.2 percent during the first quarter.

Tesla Model S

The Tesla Model S is among the few plug-based vehicles to pick up momentum. The California battery-carmaker delivered 10,030 vehicles during the first quarter, a 55 percent year-over-year jump. But that includes sales in China and Europe, where Tesla is still ramping up its distribution network.

Perhaps the most disconcerting statistic reveals that when owners traded in their old hybrids and EVs this year, only 45 percent purchased another vehicle using alternative power – and 22 percent of those vehicles were traded in for SUVs, according to Edmunds.

There are a number of possible reasons why. Industry analysts point to the limited range and lack of a charging network for plug-based vehicles like the Nissan Leaf and the Chevrolet Volt – the latter suffering such a sharp drop in sales Chevy is shutting down production months early as it prepares to launch a new version of the plug-in hybrid later this year.

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But pocketbook issues may be the biggest factor, according to Edmunds analyst Caldwell. "Three years ago, when gas was at near-record highs, it was a lot easier to rationalize the price premiums on alternative fuel vehicles. But with today's gas prices as low as they are, the math just doesn't make a very compelling case."

Ironically, automakers have made their latest SUVs and crossovers even more attractive by boosting their fuel economy, says Margo Oge, the former director of the EPA’s Office of Transportation and Air Quality, who helped craft the tough new fuel economy standards being phased in over the next decade.

“One of the reasons gas prices are down is because of the fuel-efficient cars manufacturers sell in the U.S. Demand for oil is down,” Oge explains.

More from The Detroit Bureau:

Slashing prices

Desperate to maintain demand, most manufacturers have been slashing prices on their battery-based vehicles. Chevrolet reduced the MSRP on its little Spark EV by 6 percent earlier this month. Ford has trimmed thousands of dollars off the price of its Focus EV.

They’re also rethinking the type of alternative-power vehicles they’re bringing to market. Chevy is expected to drop the price, boost the range, and increase the performance of the 2016 Volt. It is also preparing a new battery-electric model, named Bolt, that will get 200-miles per charge, more than double the range of the Spark EV. The next Nissan Leaf will also deliver closer to 200 miles.

General Motors’ flagship Cadillac brand will sideline its slow-selling ELR plug-in, while launching a new plug version of its big CT6 sedan that will yield nearly the range and fuel economy – but also the sort of performance normally delivered by a gas-guzzling V-8.

Caddy plans to add plug-in versions of most of its models by 2020. Mercedes-Benz will add 10 PHEVs by 2017. And for those who want to be enviro-conscious while still driving an SUV, BMW just launched a plug-in version of its X5.

Industry analysts note that while luxury buyers are the least likely to feel the impact of fuel prices, many would like the bragging rights of driving something environmentally friendly – if they don’t have to sacrifice performance and comfort.