Report: Hybrids Not Selling As Well As Analysts Predicted

May 26, 2011
2010 Lexus RX 450h

2010 Lexus RX 450h

2011 Toyota Prius

2011 Toyota Prius

Among vehicles that you fill with gasoline, the list of most fuel-efficient models is topped by several hybrids—including the Toyota Prius, Lexus CT 200h, and Honda Civic Hybrid. But only the 2011 Prius today could be called a big seller; and even at that, it's at a fraction of the sales that were predicted years ago.

Veteran automotive columnist Alex Taylor III at Fortune has taken a look at how forecasts for hybrid models have, at times, been almost wildly optimistic.

For instance, in 2008, J.D. Power predicted that hybrid vehicle sales would hit 600,000 annually in 2009 and continue to about a million units per year by 2012, as long as gas prices continue to grow. Gas prices did continue to grow for much of that period, and instead, they totaled about 290,000 for 2009 and fell to about 236,000 in 2010.

As recently as 2008, Honda was anticipating that hybrids would account for ten percent of its global vehicle sales by 2010. Not even close.

Forecasts have also pegged hybrids and electric cars at that time, combined, as grabbing about four percent of the market—yet they haven't yet reached 2.5 percent.

Ford Chairman Bill Ford recently wrote a piece, also for Fortune, in which he anticipated that about a quarter of the company's fleet will be electrified by 2020.

But in that same piece, Ford concedes that "You might as well throw a dart. One thing I've learned is that you can't push technology. It has to be pulled."

As Taylor points out, Ford intended to build up to 250,000 hybrids by 2010, but it sold roughly 35,000 in 2010.

Meanwhile, Renault-Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn has been essentially betting the company's future on EVs, anticipating that battery electric vehicles (not hybrids) could account for ten percent of the company's worldwide sales by 2020.

Toyota (which had talked about making its lineup all-hybrid by 2020), recently passed three million total sales of its hybrid models worldwide and one million Prius models sold in the U.S. Yet so far, it's a market anomaly; in fact, none of the newer hybrid models introduced—including the Honda Insight, Honda CR-Z—have proven themselves to be much more than niche models. The Insight in particular has foundered at a fraction of its intended sales.

Of course, the stock market crash in 2008 and the following 2009 recession probably had something to do with that missed target. During that time, sales have slumped and sticker prices have arguably had a greater influence than gas mileage—although hybrid interest did show signs of surging for a time when gas prices rose more rapidly past $4 a gallon.

Let us know what you think. Are hybrids finally going to arrive for a larger portion of the automotive market, or will their price premium still prove an obstacle?


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