The 5 Best-Selling Electric Cars of 2016

Electric-vehicle sales have jumped in 2016, with InsideEVs reporting that U.S. sales were up 30.7% through October to 120,517 units, and worldwide sales were up 30.1% to 518,440 units. And this could be the calm before the storm with Tesla Motors (NASDAQ: TSLA), General Motors (NYSE: GM), and Ford (NYSE: F) all launching high-profile EVs in 2017.

Here's a look at which models are selling well in 2016 and what it might mean for next year's EV market.

Surprise! Tesla Model S was the most popular EV on the market this year. Image source: Tesla.

Tesla leads the EV charge

It shouldn't surprise anyone that Tesla is leading the EV revolution, given its sole focus on making electric vehicles. Through the first 10 months of the year, the company sold 22,171 Model S units in the U.S. and 13,448 of the SUV Model X, good for the No. 1 and No. 3 spots on the list of best-selling EVs. And this is ahead of the Model 3 launch next year, which could be transformational in the EV industry.

The Chevy Volt from General Motors is No. 2 in sales so far this year with 18,517 vehicles sold. The car isn't all-electric, but it's the precursor to the all-electric Bolt coming in limited quantities late in 2016.

Ford's Fusion Energi is fourth in sales with 13,022 sold; Nissan's Leaf has sold 10,650 vehicles, placing it in the fifth spot; and BMW's i3 comes in sixth with 6,205 sales. Ford's C-Max Energi and BMW's X5 xDrive40e are also notable in the sales lineup of vehicles with electric capabilities.

What we can learn from EV sales

If you look at the trends from 2015 to 2016, you can see that Tesla's all-electric long-range strategy is gaining traction. At the same time, Nissan and BMW, both with all-electric short-range vehicles, have seen sales fall during the year. Interestingly, hybrid EV sales are up, with the Chevy Volt and Ford Energi offerings both picking up steam in 2016.

The lesson for automakers here is that making a short-range all-electric vehicle is a terrible way to dip their toes into the EV waters. They've seen better results with either making a hybrid that takes any range anxiety out of the question, or going all-in and making a long-range electric vehicle that will wow consumers.

The EVs to watch in 2017

Before the Model 3 hits showrooms late in 2017, there are a few new EVs that'll be worth watching. The Chevy Bolt promises a range of 200-plus miles with a price tag of around $35,000 and will be the first long-range offering from a traditional automaker. Will the car be compelling against a looming Model 3? The answer could tell a lot about whether EVs from manufacturers other than Tesla can gain traction.

I'll also be looking at the launch of improvements to theBMWi3 and Ford Focus Electric. Both are promising longer range capabilities to models that have yet to gain a lot of traction. The challenge could be that neither will likely exceed the magic 200-mile range marker. And that could limit the popularity of both vehicles, despite their potential to be attractive EV offerings.

2016 could be a turning point for EVs

This year may be seen as the point at which the EV industry went from its nascent stage to a full-on growth mode. Customers are now demanding EVs that have long range and high performance, and automakers are starting to respond. I wouldn't expect Tesla's leadership position to be challenged in the next few years, but we'll have to see if companies like GM, Ford, and BMW make a more concerted effort to bring EVs to the market before Tesla can consolidate power. So far, their products haven't gained the kind of traction Tesla's have, and that'll need to change in order for automakers to bring EVs to the masses.

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Travis Hoium owns shares of Ford. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Ford and Tesla Motors. The Motley Fool recommends BMW and General Motors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.