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Hybrid and electric car sales soar as gas prices fall

(MoneyWatch) Hybrid and electric cars, contrary to their usual trend, have continued strong sales even as gas prices have fallen. With gas more than 50 cents per gallon below its peak earlier this year, hybrid and electric sales still surged by 164 percent in June, according to Kelley Blue Book.

But not all electrics performed equally. Vehicles with a back-up gasoline engine like the Chevrolet Volt sold strongly, while pure electrics such as the Nissan Leaf lagged. General Motors sold 1,760 Volts in June and 8,817 for the first half of the year -- a 221% increase -- while the Nissan Leaf sold 535 in June and 3,148 in the first half of 2012.

The issue is range anxiety -- drivers' fear of being stuck on the road when the battery runs out on an all-electric car. "Range anxiety just kills it for a lot of day-to-day consumers," says Ivan Drury, an analyst with With the Volt, a backup gasoline engine kicks in after the battery's range of about 35 miles is exhausted.

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In addition to the Volt, Toyota Prius is now offering a plug-in hybrid version that recharges when plugged in but has a backup gasoline engine. That now gives the Prius family a wide choice. The small-car Prius C has sold strongly since its introduction earlier this year. And the traditional Prius and bigger Prius V also continue to do well. Overall Prius sales were up 300 percent over June of last year, although that number was boosted somewhat by a comparison with limited inventory last June after the Japanese earthquake and tsunami.

In addition, more plug-in hybrids are coming on the market. Later this year, Ford is introducing a small crossover called the C-Max, which has a plug-in version. The company says it will be able to travel about 20 miles on electric power alone but then could add an additional 530 miles with the gasoline engine. Reports suggest that some mid-size sedans such as the Ford Fusion and Honda Accord also could add plug-in versions in the future.

Even with state budget crises, some states continue to give incentives for electric and plug-in vehicles. Volt has now qualified for the $2,500 rebate California gives to buyers of such cars.. Perhaps more important for some daily commuters, these cars also get a sticker allowing the driver to use the car pool lane even when alone in the car. In traffic-clogged California cities, that can mean major time saving during a commute.

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