Why Haven't Hybrid Sales Been Higher, And Should They Be?

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2010 Honda Insight

2010 Honda Insight

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Hybrid cars seem to bring out strong beliefs among car buyers, both pro and con.

On the pro side, they get better gas mileage, offer some small degree of all-electric running, and let buyers display (to varying degrees) their green credentials.

On the con side, they're usually pricier than similarly equipped gasoline-engined cars, and the payback on that extra cost is debatable and varies greatly with driving behavior, length of ownership, and comparison set.

There's also a fair degree of back-and-forth between hybrid enthusiasts and proponents of clean-diesel vehicles, whose sales are rising slowly as more are offered to U.S. buyers.

2011 Honda Insight

2011 Honda Insight

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Most hybrids get their best fuel economy in stop-and-go city driving, though this is changing, and most clean diesels are most efficient in high-speed highway cruising. And those generalizations too can be debated.

What's not debatable is that after a decade on the market, hybrids overall represent less than 3 percent of U.S. new vehicle sales, and that number has stayed more or less steady for a few years.

Of that number, more than half the sales are of the Toyota Prius, the quintessential hybrid that gets a combined EPA gas-mileage rating of 50 mpg.

But as a recent article in Fortune magazine points out, sales forecasts for hybrid models were, at times in the past, far more optimistic.

2010 Toyota Prius

2010 Toyota Prius

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The article goes into some detail on projections both by auto analysts such as J.D. Power and the automakers themselves--including Honda, which expected hybrids to make up 10 percent of its global sales by 2010.

The market failure of the 2010 Honda Insight hybrid, which has logged only a fraction of its predicted sales, means Honda hasn't a hope of getting near that number.

The Fortune article is worth reading, and then we'd like to throw out some questions to you, our readers.

Why haven't hybrids sold in greater numbers? Should they have? Will they make up the difference in years to come?

And what can this teach us about predictions for sales of plug-in and electric vehicles over the next 10 years?

Will plug-ins overtake hybrids, or will both technologies increase in number as fuel economy and carbon emissions standards tighten globally?

Let us know what you think in the Comments below.



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Comments (9)
  1. For people to buy any car in large numbers, it needs to offer something compelling. That feature could be style, MPG, comfort, size, etc. So the failure (or success) or hybrids may have to do more with the specific vehicles then whether they are hybrid or not.

    An interesting look into this behavior can be found in a report called "Why people really buy hybrids."
    The survey found that 40% of people purchased a Prius because it was CHEAPER than the alternative. This is contrary to the view often expressed on Green Car Reports."

  2. If you are wondering how a Prius could be cheaper than the alternative, it is simply because the average new vehicle costs $29,000. So for many people, the price of the Prius is less than what they were planning to spend, i.e. cheaper.

    So why did they buy it? Well they liked it. They liked the hatchback format and they liked the technology, i.e. it was compelling in a way that another German luxury car wasn't. It is a "fun" car according to the people surveyed.

    Contrast that with many of the hybrids that are identical to their ICE counter parts and in many cases offer very limited improvement in MPG. In other words, lousy, not compelling hybrids. The 2010 Honda Insight is a perfect example of a non-compelling car.

  3. So without the Prius, it appears that hybrid numbers would have been much lower. On the flip site, if someone had offered an SUV, mini-van, sports car that was truly compelling and happened to be a hybrid with excellent MPG, hybrid sales would be even higher.

    Yes we need more hybrids but they need to be a compelling and obvious choice, rather than a compromise.

    We see this in other areas where people are slow to adopt energy efficient lighting in their houses (CFL or LED), but have all adopted for portable applications (flashlights). This is because longer life makes the energy efficient choice compelling.

  4. @John C Briggs: I had a lengthy e-mail exchange with the author of this report, which is 4 years old and based on data from only a few hundred Prius owners. You and I can communicate offline if you like.

  5. I am the type of person who would buy a hybrid, the bring-my-own-bags to the grocery type of green. But when I needed to buy a car in 2003, the Prius and hybrid technology were still too new to me. I wasn't sure it was a good investment.

    I don't think people will spend thousands of dollars on something until they are sure it is a good product. I would like to buy a hybrid now, but my car is still in good shape, so I will wait a few more years. Although many people will argue that hybrids cost too much, even for those that can afford them, they're going to make sure they're buying a well-tested product, and that takes time, at least 10 good years in the market, which we are just coming up on now.

  6. Also, you might be surprised how many people don't understand exactly what a hybrid is. I have had well-educated people tell me that they wouldn't consider a hybrid because they don't want to plug in their car at night...

  7. @John, Sounds excellent. I would love to know what you found out.

  8. I recently bought a small car and seriously considering buying a hybrid or diesel, but just couldn't justify the costs. In many ways I would be considered the ideal target customer for a hybrid, for environmental as well as economic reasons. I ended up buying a VW Golf 2.5L (gas version), even though its mileage ratings are mediocre for a small car, because it was well-priced, fun to drive, quick acceleration and nice handling, lots of cargo and seating space, and very nice interior. In contrast, all of the hybrids that I considered (Prius, Ford C-Max, Honda Insight) as well as the VW Golf TDI diesel were considerably more expensive. The hybrids were all slower, handled worse and had much less cargo space. Toyota interiors were chintzy.

  9. I do own a hybrid, a 2012 Toyota Camry, but with less than 10k miles on it. It will take the lifetime of the car (or me) to break even. But I didn't buy it to justify the cost, but to help the environment and cut down the need for oil. If every car was a hybrid, I'm sure the economy of numbers would drive the cost down some, but it would still be too expensive for a lot of people. And lets face it, at about 5k miles per year, I'm really not making a lot of difference to the world. But I'm happy.

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