3 Best-Selling Hybrids: Toyota Prius, Honda Insight, Sonata Hybrid

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2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid

2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid

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For a few years now, hybrid sales have been stalled at 2 to 3 percent of the U.S. market.

But for the first seven months of this year, the total is at the low end of the scale: Hybrids represented 2.06 percent of sales from January through August, and just 1.98 percent of sales in August alone.

The top three best-selling hybrids since January are:

2011 Toyota Prius

2011 Toyota Prius

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  • Toyota Prius: The quintessential hybrid, the mid-size five-door hatchback Prius has been the best-selling hybrid in the States for many years.
    2011 EPA ratings: 51 mpg city, 48 mpg highway, 50 mpg combined

  • Honda Insight: The subcompact five-door hatchback Insight is the cheapest hybrid on sale in the U.S., but its sales have never come close to Honda's original plans. (Changes are coming for 2012.)
    2011 EPA ratings: 40 mpg city, 43 mpg highway, 41 mpg combined

  • Hyundai Sonata Hybrid: Like the rest of the Hyundai lineup, the new mid-size 2011 Sonata Hybrid sedan sells well and is perceived as good value for money.
    2011 EPA ratings: 35 mpg city, 40 mpg highway, 37 mpg combined

Analysts propose several reasons for the plateau in hybrid sales.

First, most hybrids from Asian makers--including the three above--are built in their home countries, even if non-hybrid versions of the same car (e.g. Hyundai Sonata) are built in the U.S.

That means the March 11 earthquake and resulting tsunami, which severely damaged large portions of Japan's industrial infrastructure, cut off or limited the supply of hybrid models for some time. Some makers--Honda in particular--are still suffering from production cutbacks.

2011 Honda Insight

2011 Honda Insight

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Hyundai, on the other hand, was unaffected by the earthquake, and its hybrid Sonata is rapidly climbing the sales charts. At current rates, the 2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid will pass the 2011 Honda Insight this month to take second place on the sales charts for 2011.

Second, hybrid cars are still more expensive than gasoline cars of the same size. Yes, gasoline costs are lower, but retail buyers chronically underweight running costs and overemphasize purchase price--meaning hybrids carry a disadvantage on first glance.

Third, U.S. buyers can now choose from a far broader range of vehicles with a combined EPA rating of 30 mpg or more.

While the relative value of improvements to gas mileage are confusing to many, a 33-mpg combined rating in a conventional gasoline car may be perceived as "good enough" for many buyers who aren't inclined to go for the top 50-mpg fuel economy of the Prius.

After all, with gas at $3.50 a gallon, the cost difference over 10,000 miles between 33 and 50 mpg is just $350. Even if buyers don't do the math, many likely understand the declining cost savings at the higher end of the mileage scale.

2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid

2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid

Enlarge Photo

But take heart, hybrid fans. Virtually every carmaker is working on expanding its hybrid offerings, simply because global gas-mileage and carbon emissions standards will require that some portion of future lineups include vastly more fuel efficient vehicles.

All cars will get more efficient, and gasoline cars may close the gap with today's hybrids (e.g. the SkyActiv engine in the 2012 Mazda Mazda2 subcompact may deliver a combined rating of more than 40 mpg on U.S. test cycles).

But there'll be more hybrids available, and their mileage too will increase--even if, like GM with its mild-hybrid Buick eAssist technology, they're not necessarily called "hybrids".

This is just the start of a long evolution in car technology.

Hmmmmmm. What would be the hybrid-car equivalent of a "Darwin fish" symbol?



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Comments (18)
  1. John V.

    A question, if you add the Leaf and Volt sales in with hybrids, would sales aggregated as such represent the same long held steady 2 to 3% of the overall market? Is the market for green cars constrained at this level overall?

  2. @Jeff: Interesting question, but my personal POV is that the two types of cars hit different points on the early-adopter scale.

    Until hybrid supplies are restored to normal and the pipeline refills (sometime between December and March), I'm not sure the hybrid sales figures shouldn't come with an asterisk. Also, note that the total plug-in car sales for 2011 are likely to be only one month's sales of hybrids ... it's a different order of magnitude.

    All that said, I'd be curious to see more buyer data about any substitution effect: "I was gonna buy a hybrid, now I'm getting a plug-in instead."

  3. The substitution effect would be very interesting indeed. But I wonder if there is any good way to get that data. Of course there is customer survey's but I find such things to be unreliable.

  4. Yes, supply constraints have flipped all analyses on their...end-pages?

  5. I've driven the Hyundai Sonata Hybrid and found it drove better than what I've read in reviews. It glided along the smooth streets of Palm Springs and was quiet and comfortable. I felt the constant coupling of the gas engine and the electric motor, but it was more in the throttle than in any body shakes. I thought it was quite a nice package for a fair price.

    I'm sure the sales figures here also included the Kia Optima Hybrid. I haven't driven it, but it has two options not available in the Hyundai - both very useful: cooled seats and driver's side seat memory. Plus you get Sirius rather than XM. I prefer Sirius, but that's a personal matter. The perforated leather seats in the Kia are a nice touch too.

  6. As always, there is a subtle belittling tone towards hybrids.

    Comparing 33 and 50 mpg, there is a small mistake claiming the savings is $350 versus $361 (I know just rounding, sure). Then gasoline is $3.67/gallon rather than $3.50 listed (again rounding, I am sure), but would make the savings be $378.

    But if we are to consider yearly savings, 15,000 miles is really more appropriate than 10,000 miles and brings the savings to $567.

    Considered over the vehicle’s 10 year life that is $5,672, which is not insignificant and likely to be higher as gasoline prices are likely to rise.

    Add to that savings the pollution associated with 1545 gallons of gasoline (nearly 10,000 pounds) and you will see why 33 mpg is not nearly good enough.

  7. @John: Yes, rounding error. To be more precise, I should have said 33.3 mpg. But, where do you get "15,000 miles is really more appropriate than 10,000"? I believe that's far too high.

    A quick Google search gives me: "In 2008, the average distance driven by US drivers, which includes all motor vehicles, was 11,631 miles. (Source: Federal Highway Administation)" although the FHA link was dead.

    That's average per driver for ALL vehicles driven, so I would suspect the average U.S. *vehicle* travels less than 10,000 miles per year.

    And obviously I disagree about what you perceive to be "a subtle belittling tone toward hybrids."

  8. There is a little website called "www.FuelEconomy.gov" that you might what to check out. It actually calculates these costs for you including using 15,000 miles per year.

    Oh, and it is the same one that gives you the EPA numbers so it will be consistent with the EPA numbers that you use.

  9. Furthermore, if you do a mostly city driving, hybrids make even more sense.

    Consider the Hyundai Elantra which is 33 mpg combined. It is actually only 29 mpg city. Compared to a hybrid that gets 51 mpg city, the savings is $8.188 over 10 years. Not too shabby.

    Of course, if you do mostly highway driving, hybrids make less sense and a clean diesel might be worth considering.

  10. Yes, John, I'm well aware of FuelEconomy.gov. I use it daily, or close. But the fact that it uses 15,000 miles for its calculations doesn't make that the most appropriate number when discussing individual vehicles and their real-world mileage.

  11. You have a disturbing habit of changing your mileage amounts from article to article. Sometimes you use a small number like 100 miles (perhaps based on a gallons per 100 mile philosophy). In this article you use 10,000 miles, for some unknown reason.

    If the EPA's 15,000 mile number is not to your liking, let me just suggest that it has the advantage of being consistent. It also has the advantage of having the reader see a number that matches the EPA window sticker.

    There might also be an argument for using the owner lifetime mileage for the car, perhaps 100,000 or 150,000 miles. This would show the real financial impact to the customer of their purchase.

  12. The article really missed an opportunity to educate people that they could have saved $8,000 in reduced gasoline costs over the lifetime of the vehicle.

    And as always, no discussion of CO2, NO2, oil spills yada yada yada, all that green carp. But I have given up on you discussing such trivial things. That will have to be left to George.

  13. John: We don't cover every single aspect and calculation of fuel economy in every single article. That's not our mission. And I'm sorry you don't like the fact that we don't always cover topics the way you would have. I hope you find some value in GreenCarReports despite your frequent criticisms.

  14. I am torn between apologizing and pressing my point. Guess I will press my point.

    "Don't cover every single aspect..."

    To the contrary, you cover only one single aspect, money. My complaint here is that I don't think that even that was covered particularly fairly.

    But of course, Green Car Reports does awesome reporting of First Drive of new cars as well as car shows. Also GCR does a great job of setting the records straight for EVs and even includes CO2 discussions to go with EVs. Somehow that discussion is lost on other vehicles.

  15. Makes me wonder what readers want in green car reporting.

    In reports on muscle cars, listing bhp, torque, and 0-60 are de rigueur.

    Is it too much to ask that green car reporting include some CO2 emissions? and at least some fained interested in reducing it.

  16. And when people report on muscle cars, does anyone ever say that 0-60 time of 6 seconds is sufficient, or do they say that 5 seconds is just so much better? I suspect that they make a big deal out of fractions of a second improvements in acceleration.

    So why isn't there a similar "Talking up" of small improvements in MPG in the green car reporting?

  17. ** "feigned" not "fained"

  18. I am surprised the Camry Hybrid did not make the list. I am not aware of how many have been sold as compared to the three listed, but I can tell you this is one comfortable car and the mileage pretty darn good. I average 35 city and 40 hwy and they certainly have been around a lot longer than the Hyundai.

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