Back in July 2009, two Japanese automakers launched electric cars within weeks of each other. (And neither one was Nissan.)
One was Mitsubishi, which put its i-MiEV five-door hatchback microcar on sale after several years of consumer tests. That car is now the best-selling electric car in the world, with 5,000 sold as of December, and will be coming to the States as the 2012 Mitsubishi 'i'.
The other was Subaru, which offered an electric version of its Stella mini-car for retail sale the same summer, limited to the Japanese market. But unlike the Mitsubishi, the Stella electric car has languished in the market, with sales projected at just 400 by March.
Now, Subaru is killing its electric car. According to a Japanese newspaper, sales of the Stella could end as early as March. The Subaru Plug-In Stella uses a small 9-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery, driving a 47-kilowatt electric motor. Its range was quoted at roughly 50 miles.
The company says it will suspend work on electric vehicles for up to five years while it waits for the market to mature and public charging infrastructure to be installed.
Subaru's decision may reflect influence from Toyota, which now owns roughly one-fifth of Fuji Heavy Industries, parent company of the carmaker. Toyota is publicly downbeat on the chances for electric cars, reflecting its 15 years of investments in its Hybrid Synergy Drive system for hybrid-electric vehicles.
Next year, Subaru is expected to offer its first hybrid, a version of its Forester compact crossover utility vehicle, based at least in part on the Toyota system, but with Subaru's characteristic 'boxer' flat-four engine.
And just yesterday, news reports indicated that the next-generation Subaru Tribeca seven-seat SUV might share a platform with the next Toyota Highlander.
Subaru has several challenges in coordinating its products with Toyota, including its unusual boxer engine that requires different body-structure engineering. As well as the hybrid Forester, the two companies are cooperating on development of a long-delayed sports coupe model.
Meanwhile, the 2011 Nissan Leaf is expected to seize the crown of the world's best-selling electric car, with global production of up to 50,000 units projected this year.
It's hard not to imagine the hand of Toyota in Subaru's decision, though perhaps the company is simply allocating resources where it sees the most market opportunity. The company said it did not see opportunities for profit in small-scale electric car sales for some time to come.
Either way, an early electric-car pioneer is giving up on its first offering. Gee, does this sound familar?