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(Reuters) - U.S. plug-in electric cars started 2013 slowly, as sales of the Chevrolet Volt, the Toyota Prius Plug-In and Nissan Leaf each had deep dropoffs in January from December.
Volt sales fell 57 percent in January from December, Leaf sales fell 56 percent and Prius Plug-In sales were down 36 percent. Industrywide, U.S. auto sales fell 23 percent from December, and rose 14.2 percent from last January.
Even after accounting for the fact that January is one of the slowest months of the year for auto sales, the dropoff for plug-in electric cars was considerable, said Michelle Krebs, analyst with Edmunds.com.
Krebs said U.S. consumers who want an alternative to fully gasoline-powered cars are opting for less-expensive standard hybrids, rather than plug-in electric cars. The automakers themselves cited other factors such as limited inventories and production that has yet to gear up fully.
The Volt and the Prius Plug-In are both gasoline-electric plug-in hybrids while the Leaf runs fully on electric power.
Automakers reported increased U.S. and Canadian January sales on Friday.
Toyota and Nissan officials each said sales for their plug-in electric vehicles were down because of model year changeovers that cut the number of available cars on dealer lots.
Also, said Nissan brand North American sales chief Al Castignetti, production of the Leaf cars for the U.S. market was down because production at a plant in Tennessee which began recently is not yet at full capacity. Production of the Leaf recently switched from a plant in Japan.
General Motors Co officials said January sales were down for the Chevy Volt due to a spike in December sales related to buyers who bought before the end of the year to gain 2012 tax benefits.
Limited inventory in January makes sense, said Jesse Toprak, analyst with TrueCar.com, who agreed dealer inventory was slight in January.
"I anticipate the sales of the three vehicles to grow by at least 8 percent in 2013," said Toprak.
U.S. January sales of the Volt were 1,140, down from 2,633 in December. Its 2012 sales were 23,461, up from 7,671 in 2011.
For Toyota Motor Corp's Prius Plug-In, January U.S. sales were 874, down from 1,361 in December. Its 2012 sales were 13,200, the year it was introduced.
But sales for the Prius Plug-In will slide this year, to about 12,000, said Bill Fay, head of U.S. sales for the Toyota brand.
Fay said he is "very positive" but has moderate expectations for the Prius Plug-In sales.
Nissan Motor Co's Leaf saw sales drop in January to 650. After production ramps up to full capacity in Tennessee, Leaf sales will be about 1,500 a month, said Castignetti.
Reporting By Bernie Woodall; Editing by David Gregorio