Hybrid Vehicle Sales Speed Up

(Los Angeles Times/MCT) —

When Ferrari’s biggest and baddest supercar is a hybrid, you know the world has changed.

Once considered the province of techies and the eco-friendly, hybrids are catching on in almost every vehicle segment.

Hybrid sales were up 32 percent in the first two months of this year compared with the same period last year, according to research firm Autodata Corp.

That’s driven by a combination of trends, including upward-creeping gas prices, a growing track record for reliability and the wider selection of hybrid offerings – everything from the entry-level Toyota Prius C to the spacious Ford Fusion sedan to the LaFerrari, a 949-horsepower, million-dollar monster.

Market share for all hybrids had been stalled at less than three percent. It has recently crept up to four percent and could double by the end of the decade, said Thilo Koslowski, an analyst at Gartner, Inc.

“Hybrid technology has certainly reached the inflection point,” Koslowski said, “and is being taken seriously by virtually all the automakers.”

The vehicles use at least one electric motor to assist a primary gasoline engine, particularly in fuel-sucking situations such as taking off from a stoplight. The cars also capture electricity when they slow down and store it in a battery. Some can run on electricity alone for varying distances. Their fuel economy can be more than 40 percent better than the conventional gasoline version of the same model.

Automakers say the success of the Toyota Prius has helped fuel interest in hybrids nationwide.

“Gas prices are part of the equation, but it’s more about having the product in decent numbers,” said Jason Mosley, general manager of AutoNation Ford in Houston. The dealership’s sales of Ford’s hybrid cars are up 400 percent from a year ago.

Ford’s new hybrids are selling to car shoppers such as Paul Cunningham, an insurance industry executive from Encino, Calif. who bought a hybrid Fusion recently.

“I really like the design of the Fusion. I like the idea of hybrid and saving money on fuel with the current gas prices,” Cunningham said. “I also like the idea of buying an American car.”

Cunningham’s Fusion is getting about 42 miles per gallon, about double the fuel economy of the Saab it replaces.

Now the Cunninghams are a two-hybrid family. His wife, Sherri, drives a Prius.

“The public has embraced these technologies because they have proven to be reliable and efficient,” said Ed La Rocque, Toyota’s brand manager for advanced technology vehicles.

Even so, hybrids will most likely account for a comparatively small portion of auto sales for years to come.

“A lot of it still depends on fuel prices,” La Rocque said. “If we get up above $5 or $6 a gallon, we will see a dramatic change.”

Some would-be buyers have been reluctant because they worry that the batteries will have to be replaced or that the cars will experience technical problems with their multiple drive systems.

But this hasn’t proved to be the case so far. Toyota says 90 percent of the Prius cars it has sold since introducing the model to the U.S. market in 2000 are still on the road.

“That’s why you see so many Prius taxicabs,” La Rocque said. If the cars were unreliable, he reasoned, taxi services wouldn’t use them.

Another drag on sales is the higher sticker prices.

The Toyota Camry hybrid is about $3,500 more than a similarly-equipped gasoline-only Camry. At current California gas prices, it takes almost five years of fuel savings to make up for the higher price.

Ford’s Fusion hybrid carries a similar price premium but has a payback at least a year faster because of the bigger difference between its fuel economy and that of the conventional Fusion, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

At the same time, gasoline-powered cars are becoming more competitive.

“The fuel economy on gas engines is getting better. There are some new diesels coming out that get great mileage,” said Jessica Caldwell, an analyst with auto information company Edmunds.com. “Americans want fuel economy no matter what, and they aren’t that picky about where they get it.”

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