The month-by-month sales competition between the electric Nissan Leaf and the plug-in hybrid Chevrolet Volt has been watched intensely all year.
The Leaf outsells the Volt. The Volt outsells the Leaf. The Leaf outsells the Volt.
But a competition? Not really.
The Chevy Camaro and Ford Mustang -- that's a competition. The Volt and Leaf are, by comparison, just simultaneously occupying the same new, barely understood space: the electric-drive segment.
But there's another layer to this sales-contest-that-isn't-really-a-sales-contest, both General Motors and Nissan Motor Co. agree. It's called a learning curve.
Chevrolet and Nissan are still selling to early adopters and green enthusiasts and will be for most of the coming year. Their real challenge is to learn how to market the high-profile cars to mainstream U.S. consumers in mass-production volumes in 2012 and beyond.
To prepare for that, both automakers are using 2011 as a sort of practice year, taking notes, tinkering with tactics and honing their marketing messages.
"We've learned that this product is a different experience," says Cristi Landy, the Volt's product marketing manager at GM. "No customer who buys this vehicle is replacing a vehicle that was anything like it. So it's new for the customers; it's new for us.
"And we've also learned that it is confusing to people."
What that means for the marketing mission, Landy adds, is that "we have two issues: There's marketing to the people who are going to buy it, and then there's marketing to people who just want to know about it."
No question, it is a market that fascinates consumers, says Mike VanNieuwkuyk, J.D. Power and Associates' executive director of global research. Consumers are expressing keen interest in electric vehicles.
But he and others at Power doubt the interest will result in strong sales.
"So far it's a technology for a limited number of buyers," VanNieuwkuyk says. "It's going to take something to move it beyond the small niche position they are in and into the big volumes they're envisioning."