According to the year-end plug-in vehicle sales scorecard compiled by the website InsideEVs.com, Tesla sold 158,925 Model 3s in the U.S. during 2019. That not only makes it the most-popular plug-in vehicle in America, it’s handily outselling all the other electric cars on the market combined, and by a substantial margin.
The Model 3 quite literally beat the pants off all comers last year, including its own showroom siblings, the older and far pricier Tesla Model Y at 19,225 units and the Model S at 14,100 delivered in 2019. Other top sellers in this segment, though nowhere near the Model 3, include the Chevrolet Bolt EV and the Nissan Leaf, responsible for an estimated 16,416 and 12,365 units, respectively. No other EVs recorded five-figure sales last year.
Tesla reportedly pulled out all the proverbial stops to make fourth-quarter sales before its federal tax credit granted to EV buyers expired. The credits phase out for any automaker that sells more than 200,000 plug-in cars, which is something Tesla accomplished in 2008. Its credits dwindled to $1,875 as of July 1, 2019, and were eliminated altogether on January 1.
But that still doesn’t explain the Model 3’s overwhelming dominance in the still nascent electric vehicle market. A close look reveals that, unlike most other automakers, Tesla seems to be much of everything right with regard to its smallest and least-expensive vehicle.
For starters, it’s priced near, if not in the sweet spot for Tesla intenders, starting at $39,990 for the Standard Range Plus version. The mid-to-upper $30,000 range is a popular price point among mainstream EVs right now. Surveys almost unanimously cite the higher cost of battery-driven vehicles as being one of the biggest barriers to more widespread adoption. That could be one reason why luxury-oriented models like the Audi e-Tron and Jaguar i-Pace, priced in the $70,000 range, have yet to connect with consumers.
Range anxiety is frequently cited as a major concern with potential EV buyers, and the Model 3 largely avoids it. The base version can run for an average 250 miles on a charge. That’s more than enough to meet most motorists’ needs and is roughly on a par with smaller and less expressively styled electric vehicles like the Chevrolet Bolt EV and the Hyundai Kona Electric at 259 and 258 miles, respectively. If you have a bigger budget, the $48,990 Long Range model can traverse an estimated 322 miles with a full battery, which is about as much as anyone could drive in a single day.
Lack of a public charging infrastructure is also frequently mentioned as an issue among consumers with regard to EVs. For its part, Tesla gives Model 3 buyers access to its extensive network of Supercharger quick-charge stations, installed in myriad locations on well-traveled routes across the country. And this is in addition to the ability to charge at other expanding networks like ChargePoint, EVGo, and Electrify America.
Another lingering myth about electric cars is that they’re lacking in terms of performance. In fact the opposite is generally true. The base version of the Model 3 can race from 0-60 mph in a frisky 5.3 seconds, and a downright fast 3.2 seconds in the top Performance iteration. As with all electric cars, having the battery mounted under the passenger compartment in a skateboard-like configuration warrants a low center of gravity, which inherently helps afford crisp handling skills.
Another problem with widespread EV adoption is that many models are only sold via select dealerships in California and one or more states that adhere to its stricter emissions regulations. For example, for 2019 the Kia Niro EV was only available in California, Connecticut, Georgia, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Texas, and Washington. The Honda Clarity Electric was restricted to California and Oregon.
Though Tesla is barred from establishing a company-owned retail presence in some states or is restricted to the number they can open due to long-established franchise laws, its vehicles remain widely available and the company seems to have developed a cult following. There are company-owned Tesla Stores in 26 states where consumers can see, touch, and learn about the vehicles. Tesla also sells its cars direct to customers via the Internet, though again with exclusions in some states.
At that, the traditional sales model doesn’t seem to be delivering the goods when it comes to EVs. A recent study conducted by the Sierra Club found a disturbing lack of enthusiasm among more-established automakers and their dealers to sell electric cars. The organization sent 579 volunteers out into the field to visit over 900 auto dealerships in all 50 states to assess how well battery powered vehicles are being supported on the retail level. They found disturbing shortfalls in electric car availability, how they were presented and charged for test drives, and salesperson knowledge regarding the products.
How will the Tesla in general and the Model 3 in particular are moving forward, with another model year under its belt?
Though the Model 3 is currently king of the proverbial hill, the electric car market will see several important new models coming to market in the coming months (including some pricey pickup trucks and sports cars). For its part, Ford is generating tons of enthusiasm with its coming Mustang Mach-E full electric crossover SUV, already racking up enough pre-orders (with refundable $500 deposits) to sell out its allotment of First Edition models. The Mach-E will come to market late in 2020 and will compete most directly with Tesla’s new Model 3-based Model Y compact crossover, expected around mid-year. As it is, with consumers shunning sedans in favor of taller crossovers these days, the Model Y will undoubtedly cannibalize Model 3 sales and could fast become the automaker’s top-selling model.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle Tesla will face in 2020 will be the lack of a federal tax credit as a deal sweetener. Congress has yet to extend or amend the current federal incentives that were enacted in 2010 to help spur sales of plug-in vehicles. While Tesla’s spiffs have expired and General Motors are slated to go away on May 1, all other automakers can still offer the full $7,500 credit. Despite lobbying by the auto industry, legislators declined to address the tax credits in a year-end spending bill, with the White House said to be staunchly opposed to their retention.
I’m a veteran Chicago-based consumer automotive journalist devoted to providing news, views, timely tips and reviews to help maximize your automotive investments. In addition to posting on Forbes.com, I’m a regular contributor to Carfax.com, Motor1.com, MyEV.com and write frequently on automotive topics for other national and regional publications and websites. My work also appears in newspapers across the U.S., syndicated by CTW Features.