With hybrid cars, automakers look to blend their pitches (and prices) to sell more

March 12, 2018

Robert O’Hair and his wife Darnelle had a few must-have features on their new-car shopping list.

“Hybrid powertrain” was nowhere to be found. In that, the O’Hairs aren’t alone.

The pair had just purchased a farm in rural Colorado, almost an hour northeast of Denver, and the nearest grocery store was more than 30 minutes away. All-wheel drive wasn’t just a convenience, it would be a necessity for snow-packed commutes. Easy service and a real spare tire—not a can of fix-a-flat—would help, too.

“We bought a farm,” O’Hair said with a chuckle. “What are you going to do?”

For their budget, those three needs ruled out hybrids.

O’Hair traded in his Ford Fusion Energi Plug-in Hybrid sedan for a 2018 Ford Ecosport SE crossover SUV.

“Financially, the plug-in just wasn’t as beneficial,” he added.

O’Hair couldn’t justify the cost of another hybrid, and he wasn’t interested paying more for the complexity, he said.

 

2018 Acura RLX

2018 Acura RLX

Enlarge Photo

Cheap gas still rules

He’s not alone and other manufacturers may be listening to people like the O’Hairs.

This year, automakers such as Lexus and Acura have slashed prices for their hybrid models in an effort to lure more buyers to the technology. At the same time, cheap gas and a relatively high price for entry hybrid models have lured buyers toward less expensive, potentially less fuel-efficient new cars.

To adapt and to sell vehicles long in the pipeline, automakers are changing their tunes about hybrids and electrics. Electrification no longer is just a fuel-economy push; it’s being sold as everything from a performance boon to a luxury item.

“You get more performance and more fuel economy at the same time,” said Matt Sloustcher, spokesman for Acura. “From our standpoint, both are doing relatively well. It does present a good value proposition.”

This year, Acura simplified its offering for the RLX Sport Hybrid to just one trim, a fully loaded model that would have cost $4,050 more last year. Aside from its NSX supercar, Acura offers an MDX Sport Hybrid model that is $1,500 more than a conventionally powered MDX, typically below the market rate for hybrid versions.

Acura isn’t alone, either.

2018 Lexus RX 450hL

2018 Lexus RX 450hL

Enlarge Photo

Lexus slashed prices for its hybrid models, too. The luxury automaker cut prices by up to $4,800 for some hybrid models to better comply with fuel-economy regulations—and also to tempt new buyers.

“For the 2018 model year, we took a new approach with our hybrid pricing strategy with the goal to make this amazing powertrain available to as many people as possible,” Lexus spokeswoman Nicky Hamila said in a statement. “Some customers also expressed hesitation due to the perceived price gap between the hybrid and gas model—and our new pricing model addresses that in a big way.”

Lincoln has long offered buyers of its MKZ sedan the choice between gas and gas-electric hybrid models, with no cost difference.

Hybrid sales peaked as a percentage of the market a few years ago, at roughly 4 percent, but have now fallen to about half that. Plug-in hybrids last year represented just over 1 percent of the new-vehicle market, so they haven't yet made up the gap. Sales of the Toyota Prius have dropped since 2012, despite staying relatively affordable.

For O’Hair, saving money helps, but not as much as easily servicing his new car. He said maintaining his Fusion was a chore and until that changes, he’ll likely steer clear of batteries.

“When we lived in the city…it helped. Out here, it’s different,” he said.

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