Honda and Scion Struggle Seeking Small-Hybrid Sweet Spot

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2010 Honda Insight - front three-quarter

2010 Honda Insight - front three-quarter

Before either car launched, the 2010 Toyota Prius and 2010 Honda Insight were viewed as natural rivals. Would the third generation of Toyota's definitive hybrid be threatened by Honda's "least expensive hybrid", which too offered five doors and good gas mileage?

What a difference a year makes.

The 2010 Toyota Prius

The 2010 Toyota Prius

2011 Honda CR-Z launch, Detroit Auto Show, January 2010

2011 Honda CR-Z launch, Detroit Auto Show, January 2010

2011 Honda CR-Z

2011 Honda CR-Z

2010 scion iq concept 026

2010 scion iq concept 026

Ford's Nancy Gioia at 2008 Detroit Auto Show

Ford's Nancy Gioia at 2008 Detroit Auto Show

2009 Ford Escape Hybrid

2009 Ford Escape Hybrid

Prius romps, Insight craters

The 2010 Prius was a smash hit. Its global sales success strained Toyota and caused shortages of nickel-metal-hydride battery packs. Of 270,000 sales to date, about 140,000 came from the United States. Its nemesis proved to be not Honda, but high-tech braking software.

The 2010 Insight, meanwhile, fell woefully short. Reviewers who wanted to like it were put off by its lack of power, tinny feel, and cramped rear seat. Looking at 2009's green-car winners and losers, the Insight falls into the "Loser" column.

Honda hoped to sell more than 50,000 Insights in the U.S., but sales from March through December 2009 were a mere 20,500. Globally, sales of the 2010 Honda Insight totaled 130,000 during 2009, substantially less than its early goal of 200,000.

Honda: Just too small

Now Honda Executive Vice President Koichi Kondo has admitted to Bloomberg, "I think we compromised too much on size in pursuing fuel efficiency" in its first dedicated four-seat hybrid for the U.S. market.

Honda just launched its 2011 CR-Z hybrid sports coupe at last month's Detroit Auto Show, a tiny two-seater built on the Insight platform but using a larger 1.5-liter engine with the Insight's 10-hp electric motor, for combined peak output of 122 horsepower.

But the CR-Z is not top of the heap either in fuel economy (36 mpg city, 38 mpg highway projected with the CVT) or performance (a Japanese road test achieved 0 to 62 mph in 9.7 seconds).

"Struggling" with Fit Hybrid

And Kondo said his engineers are "really struggling" with the upcoming 2012 Honda Fit Hybrid, the third in what was expected to be a trio of new Honda hybrids. That car is expected to launch late this year.

The similarly sized 2010 Insight starts at $19,800, but the versatile five-door 2010 Fit, which starts at $14,900, is already rated to 27 mpg city, 33 mpg highway. How much more could a hybrid add--and at what cost?

Hybrids not about mileage?

This all points out the anomaly of hybrid sales in the U.S.: While they're bought because of their gas mileage, that's far from the sole reason drivers want them.  And price apparently isn't much of an issue; studies show the Prius is often bought instead of a luxury car.

So did Honda aim at the wrong target by building the Insight specifically to be the lowest-priced hybrid? Or is a small car just a more challenging package in which to pack a battery pack, an electric motor, a slew of extra electronics, and so forth?

Too pricey for Scion

One answer can be found in Scion, Toyota's smallest, youngest, and hippest U.S. brand, which aims to keep its base prices well below $20,000. Scion vice president Jack Hollis told Ward's Auto that hybrids were simply too expensive for that brand's buyers.

While he expects hybrids to arrive in the Scion lineup over the longer term, he dismissed notions that a recent smaller hybrid concept car--Toyota's FT-CH--would become a Scion. Instead, it's likely to become a smaller entry in an expanded family of Prius models.

Instead, the brand's next model is likely to be the 2011 Scion iQ mini-car, a far less expensive entry with a conventional gasoline engine.

Hybrid = electric running?

In the end, it may be that buyers agree with Ford's global electrification director, Nancy Gioia, who told the company believes, "Consumers place a premium on the ability to drive at least a little bit in all-electric mode."

In other words, hybrid buyers love the high gas mileage, but many aren't buying them for the payback but for the statement they make. And, they want--and can afford--bigger, better-equipped hybrids that include features like all-electric running as differentiating factors.

Tell us what you think!

If you're a hybrid owner already, or thinking of buying one, why buy a hybrid? What kind of car are you looking for?

Tell us what you think in the comments below.

[Bloomberg via Autoblog, Inside LineWard's Auto]

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