Hybrid cars enjoying renaissance as all-electric sales slow
As Tesla and other electric vehicles dazzled car buyers with futuristic technology and dreams of a gasoline-free future, hybrid cars began to seem like yesterday's news. Sales of the Toyota Prius, the standard bearer of hybrids, fell 85 percent in a decade.
Now, a slowdown in electric car sales growth has caused General Motors, Ford Motor and Volkswagen to scale back ambitious targets for those vehicles. And hybrid sales are strong, underscoring what may be the permanent reality of 2023: Many Americans are extremely receptive to electrification, but they're not ready for a fully electric car.
“Consumers want the same experience they have with a combustion engine car,” said Stephanie Valdez Streete, director of industry insights for Cox Automotive. “And we're not there yet. Price is still the top barrier for most consumers.”
According to Cox, Americans bought a record 1.2 million electric vehicles last year, a gain of nearly 46 percent and a 7.6 percent share of all new car sales. But according to Edmunds, hybrid sales grew even faster, increasing 65 percent to more than 1.2 million, increasing their market share from 5.5 percent to 8 percent. Enter the plug-in hybrid, and about one in 10 new cars combines a gasoline engine with an electric motor to save fuel and boost performance.
Analysts say sky-high electric car prices and concerns about public charging are pushing some car buyers toward hybrids, including renters or urbanites who want to charge a battery-powered car at home. can not do. Hybrids provide savings without the need to plug in for hours at the pump or plan trips around charging stops. Their batteries are much smaller and cost much less than batteries for fully electric vehicles.
According to Edmunds, buyers paid an average of $42,500 for hybrids in November, compared with $60,500 for electric vehicles and $47,500 for conventional models. A range of affordable hybrid models are available, many of which start at around $30,000 – including a stylishly redesigned Prius that returns a model-record 57 miles per gallon. In contrast, the electric vehicle market remains saturated with luxury offerings.
Jim Farley, Ford's chief executive, said mainstream consumers were fundamentally different from early adopters, who flocked to electric vehicles with little encouragement or education from automakers.
“EVs are growing with fantastic numbers, but what is changing is that the people buying them are not willing to pay the premium,” Mr. Farley said in an interview. “Now we have to control costs and even — surprise, surprise — advertising.”
Ford is cutting its planned production of the F-150 Lightning pickup truck and increasing production of the more affordable F-150 hybrid by 20 percent. The automaker plans to quadruple total hybrid production in hopes of selling 100,000 this year. They include the red-hot Maverick compact pickup, whose 37-mpg hybrid version exceeded Ford's most optimistic sales forecasts.
So why doesn't Ford make all Mavericks hybrids? Mr. Farley said the company is committed to offering a full range of powertrains, including electrified trucks that can power equipment, homes or even serve as mobile generators for the electrical grid. Securing battery supply also takes a long time, sometimes longer than building a new assembly line, Mr. Farley said.
“We had no idea a $30,000 truck would be so popular,” he said of the Maverick. “Ford has struggled to make money with small cars from the beginning.”
The hybrid resurgence is primarily benefiting Toyota, Honda and Hyundai Motor, including sister brand Kia.
These automakers account for about 90 percent of US hybrid sales, followed by Ford. Although GM, Volkswagen and other automakers are pledging to move fully to electric vehicles, all are continuing to invest in the technology.
Honda outdid itself in 2023, with hybrid sales nearly tripling to 294,000 units. Hybrid versions of the Honda Accord sedan and CR-V sport utility vehicle now account for more than half of those models' sales. That Accord includes luxury-level comfort, quality and features with up to 44 mpg in overall driving, starting at $33,290.
On track to record US sales in 2023, Hyundai, Kia and their Genesis luxury brand together sold more electric vehicles in the United States than any automaker except Tesla. Yet Hyundai Motor remains bullish on hybrid cars, even after proposed rules by the Biden administration that would require two-thirds of new cars to be fully electric by 2032.
“Anyone who wants to survive in this business is making these electric investments,” said Steve Senter, chief operating officer of Kia America. That includes Hyundai, which has committed to investing $12 billion in factories in Alabama and Georgia.
But Mr. Senter said an electric vehicle could not meet the needs of “a cowboy with a pickup truck in Montana.” Hybrids can help reduce emissions from those types of vehicles faster, he said.
Mr. Senter made a bold prediction: As combustion engine cars move toward obsolescence, all remaining gasoline models will adopt electrification in hybrid form. Gasoline cars won't be able to compete without it, as consumers and regulators alike demand better fuel economy and lower emissions.
“Everything should be hybrid in the beginning, because everyone can drive hybrid everywhere,” he said.
The world's largest automobile manufacturer Toyota is following the same path. Within a few months, Toyota will introduce nine hybrid-only models, including a model from its Lexus luxury brand. The company sold more than 640,000 hybrids in the US last year, accounting for 29 percent of its total US sales; It sold about 15,000 fully electric vehicles.
David Christ, general manager of Toyota's North American division, said the automaker expects 40 percent of electrified sales in 2024. He reiterated Mr Centre's view on the prospects of combustion engine cars.
“Over time, we are not averse to going all-hybrid to move faster toward a greener future,” Mr. Christ said.
Toyota's belief in democratizing hybrid technology turned the company, once an environmental darling, into a whipping boy as it was widely accused of dragging its feet on electric vehicles. If Toyota feels vindicated, Mr. Christ will not accept it.
“A year ago, we were facing criticism in the media for not believing in EVs,” he said. “We thought it was unfair, that we were not involved in electrification. We started it. Today we have eight million hybrids on the road, and each one reduces greenhouse gas emissions.
But Mr Christ said the charging infrastructure for electric vehicles was not yet ready for the millions of battery-powered cars, which is why sales of such vehicles have slowed.
“Ultimately, the consumer drives this industry, not the manufacturer,” he said.
Toyota will launch its biggest flagship ever in June. The redesigned 2025 Camry will be offered only as a hybrid. This may seem like a big gamble for the country's best-selling sedan. Toyota sold about 290,000 Camrys last year, and only 35,000 were hybrids. If the new Camry can maintain its sales, Toyota will convert a few million buyers to a roughly 50-mpg hybrid in one fell swoop. If not, the Camry franchise will be dealt a huge blow.
Yet Toyota isn't taking any steps in the dark. When Toyota switched the Sienna to an all-hybrid lineup for the 2021 model year, it immediately became America's best-selling minivan, up from fourth place.
But some auto experts said hybrids can only do so much.
Dave Cook, senior vehicle analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said hybrids were an important, affordable tool that allowed millions of drivers to use less gasoline but remained a transition technology. Long-term climate change goals still call for a shift to electric vehicles powered by the renewable energy grid, he said.
“Our comments to the EPA and to industry have been, 'Hey, put a hybrid on everything,'” Mr. Cook said, referring to the Environmental Protection Agency. “But we still need strict standards to ensure that “so that vehicle manufacturers face technically achievable regulations.”
Mr Cook said the fuel economy of the country's fleet has remained stagnant over the years, partly due to the shift to pickups and SUVs, with recent gains being due to the rise of fully electric vehicles, with hybrids playing a negligible role. .
Chris Harto, transportation and energy policy analyst for Consumer Reports, agreed with that assessment. “Hybrids take some time, but EVs are where we need to go to meet climate goals,” he said.
Yet Mr. Harto laments the popular narrative that pits hybrid and electric vehicles against each other.
“They are both taking market share from less efficient ICE vehicles,” Mr. Harto said, referring to internal combustion engines. “And there's still a lot of market share to be gained.”