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Colorado truly loves its Subarus, but when can the dog hang out the window of an electric version?

EV and Zero Emission Vehicle sales are picking up in the state, new stats show, but the lack of clean models in the SUVs and pickups we crave are bad signs for fast change in pollution

LAKEWOOD, CO - APRIL 8: Felipe Torres wipes down a SV Plus model Nissan Leaf at Empire Lakewood Nissan on April 8, 2021 in Lakewood, Colorado. This Òscarlet emberÓ color is painted using biodegradable paint and the Leaf also uses recycled foam for the seats. (Photo By Kathryn Scott)

It’s no Rocky Mountain myth: We love our Subarus. 

Colorado buys more than twice as many of the four-wheel-drive, Fido-friendly gear wagons as people in other states, according to the latest quarterly registration numbers for state vehicle sales. 

And we are moving fast toward electric vehicles, if you judge by percentage growth in the raw numbers of sales, though their share of the overall vehicle market in Colorado remains tiny and nearly out of sight for state goals set for 2030.

Coloradans registered 3,872 fully-electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles in the first three months of 2021, up 66% from the same period in 2020, according to the report prepared for the Colorado Auto Dealers Association. Both fully electric and plug-in hybrids — which supplement a plug-in electric battery with a gasoline engine that also recharges the battery — satisfy Colorado requirements that dealers must sell a certain percentage of so-called Zero Emission Vehicles starting in 2023. 

Those qualifying EVs made up 6% of the market share in Colorado, up from 3.8% in 2020, out of 64,039 total first quarter registrations. 

And we love our SUVs and pickups even more than the rest of the SUV-crazed nation. More than 86% of the vehicles Coloradans bought at the beginning of 2021 were SUVs or light trucks, compared with about 75% nationally. That Colorado affection for the 4×4 lifestyle grew from 73.6% of vehicle sales in 2016, and 58% in 2008.

Nationally, the fight for survival of the humble sedan is just about over. Cars made up more than half of national sales as recently as 2010, but are now less than a quarter. 

The sedan is an endangered species entirely in places like Grand County, where 97.1% of the vehicles sold January through March were SUVs or pickups. In all of the Western Slope, that number was a whopping 91%. 

Market experts say the EV growth is impressive, but combined with Colorado’s other traits, statewide goals for reducing auto emissions to attack climate change remain tough to reach. More than 10% of the vehicles Coloradans buy are Subarus, compared with less than 5% nationally in the first quarter. State customers would likely snatch up an EV with the Subaru nameplate. But the company has announced that its first fully electric SUV — developed with part-owner Toyota — won’t be on sale until late 2022 at the earliest. 

“Subaru is taking a relatively leisurely route to electrifying its lineup compared with other manufacturers,” Car and Driver magazine said.

Colorado will need thousands more charging stations like these at Colorado Mills to support the planned changeover to electric vehicles in coming years. April 8, 2021 in Lakewood, Colorado. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Slow adoption of EVs won’t change much until there are a lot more popular SUVs on the market, a lot more charging stations highly visible and reassuring to consumers, and a lot more vehicles that get long driving ranges, even in steep terrain and cold weather, said Jeff Carlson, who sells Subarus and Fords from Western Slope dealerships. 

“There’s a lot of things that are going to have to be sorted out for electrification to be as liberating as the internal gas combustion engine,” Carlson said. 

The dealers’ take on consumer needs was backed up this week in a report touted by the state Energy Office, saying Colorado needs to massively boost investment in charging stations and other electric infrastructure to reach its greenhouse gas goals. 

“The number of public chargers will need to grow from the 2,100 installed in 2020 to 7,600 by 2025, and 24,100 by 2030,” according to a working paper published by the International Council on Clean Transportation. The estimates are based on the state’s Greenhouse Gas Road Map goal of 940,000 electric vehicles on Colorado streets by 2030. 

“Workplace and home charging will need to increase to approximately 47,000 chargers and 437,000 chargers, respectively, by 2030,” the paper said. 

Read more transportation stories from The Colorado Sun.

Coloradans love the Ford F-150 pickup, perennially the best-selling single model from any manufacturer annually across the U.S. But an electric F-150 won’t be hitting lots in the U.S. until late 2022, and will come at a high price. 

Coloradans love the RAM truck nameplate (formerly Dodge Ram) even more, with RAM making up 5.2% of sales here in early 2021 vs. about 3.9% nationally. Each percentage point can mean hundreds of thousands of vehicle sales gains or losses nationwide. RAM is not expected to put out an electric pickup until 2023, according to Tim Jackson, president of the Colorado Auto Dealers Association. 

Toyota’s brand is also more popular in Colorado than its already-high numbers nationwide, with the Tundra pickup and RAV4 contributing to the state’s high SUV/light truck totals. Toyota, though, has been relatively slow to announce new fully electric models for its extremely popular and durable vehicles, after helping to pioneer the low-emission category with the Prius and Highlander hybrids.

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Tesla’s all-electric line is also more popular in Colorado than everywhere else, making up nearly 1,700 of the 3,091 electrics sold in the quarter. Tesla says it is now delivering on orders for its Model Y compact SUV. The company’s first quarter results show, however, that a significant portion of profits still come from selling credits to other car makers that fulfill state laws requiring each manufacturer to have a set portion of electric vehicles available on the lot. 

The carmaker startup Rivian has won hearts with an eye-catching design for its “electric adventure vehicles,” one a pickup and one a SUV. Rivian partnered with Amazon on a different, shorter-range delivery truck model that is on the road in some U.S. cities, including Denver. The company is equipping Colorado’s state parks with fast recharging stations for any brands of EV, beginning this summer, and has said it will begin delivering consumer SUVs in July or August. 

Overall car sales are rebounding after dips in 2020 from the pandemic keeping people in their homes, and lost jobs cutting into disposable income. Total vehicle sales in 2020 dropped by about 31,000 autos across Colorado from 2019. Sales rose 3.2% in the first quarter of 2021 from the previous year, and dealers say registrations lag by a few weeks and actual sales are stronger than that. Their analysts expect a nearly 8% increase for the full year in Colorado. 

The demand has combined with vehicle production problems to push down inventories across all vehicle categories, Carlson said. Supplies of key microchips to operate increasingly computerized vehicles were already tight, and then demand shifted and surged again in new industries when post-Covid economies began reopening. Other supply chain problems in mundane items like rubber hoses have also slowed manufacturing. 

Carlson’s Western Slope Subaru dealership has only 16 new Subarus on the lot, he said, compared to the usual 60 to 70. 

“We’re struggling to get vehicles of any sort,” Carlson said. “That’s not Subaru, that is industry wide.” 

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