Hybrid car sales: Lots of options, few takers

September 30, 2011: 5:09 PM ET
Depite a still-increasing number of available models, hybrid car market share peaked in 2009.

Depite a still-increasing number of available models, hybrid car market share peaked in 2009.

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- For all the excitement generated by every new hybrid car introduction, there is one little problem. In case you haven't noticed, hardly anyone is buying them.

The market share for hybrid cars peaked in 2009 at 2.8% of all new vehicles sold. The year after that, it fell to 2.4% and it's on track to be a little less than that this year, according to data from Edmunds.com.

That's despite the fact that the number of hybrid models on the market has increased each year. In 2009, there were 17. At the start of 2011, there were 30. That's more choices, but fewer takers.

And, year after year, half of that market share goes to one car: the Toyota (TM) Prius. Every other hybrid car, SUV and truck on the market put together account for a little over 1% of the new car market.

"Take the Prius out of the equation and hybrids would be a niche market," said Bill Visnic, an analyst with the automotive Web site Edmunds.com.

The biggest reason people aren't buying them is cost, industry analysts say. While gasoline may be relatively expensive it's still not pricey enough to make the thousands of dollars more that a hybrid car costs worth the investment.

A Ford (F, Fortune 500) Fusion Hybrid, for instance, costs about $5,000 more than a gasoline powered four-cylinder Fusion including rebates and dealer discounts, according to Edmunds.com.

"A lot people make that calculation and find that, even with gas at high levels, it just doesn't work out," said Visnic.

That's probably a large part of the reason the Fusion Hybrid accounts for only 5% of all Fusion sales.

Besides price, hybrid cars also face increasing competition from improved fuel economy in non-hybrid cars, said Todd Turner, an industry consultant with Car Concepts. These days car shoppers can get better than 40 miles per gallon in highway driving from a number of different compact models, and those cars are roomier inside and better equipped than ever.

By stepping down to a smaller car, buyers can save money on the purchase price while still saving gas.

Those gasoline-powered cars also don't carry the uncertainty of new technology like worries -- largely unfounded -- about hybrid batteries.

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"I think there's a wariness about buying a hybrid," said Visnic. "Am I buying some techie pain-in-the-ass thing?"

Added to that, with cars like the Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt now on the market, customers can see a future without gasoline in which the extra cost may be worth it.

According to J.D. Power's most recent U.S. Green Automotive Study, many customers are taking a "wait and see" approach to advanced technologies. They're holding out for cars that won't use any gasoline at all.

In the meantime, they're just buying one of the more fuel-efficient gasoline-only cars figuring they'll maybe go hi-tech the next time they buy a car.

Despite all this, the Prius -- it's Toyota's third most popular car -- remains successful for a number of reasons. For one, it's instantly recognizable as a hybrid. For the roughly 20% of Americans who consider themselves environmental "advocates," according to J.D. Power, that's a big deal.

"The Prius stands out as the badge of honor for people who are environmentally focused," said Mike Van Nieuwkuyk, an analyst with J.D. Power and Assoc.

Second, most people who have their heart set on buying a hybrid are after the best fuel economy, said Eric Anderson, an analyst with Intellichoice.com. The Prius -- with 50 miles per gallon in combined city and highway driving -- beats all other hybrids on the road today.

Finally, the fact the Prius is a totally unique automobile makes the simplistic cost-benefit analyses, so damning to other hybrids, impossible to make. Customers have no idea how much "more" they're spending because there's no non-hybrid version to compare to.

"Even in terms of size, there's no direct comparison," said Eric Anderson, an analyst with Intellichoice.com. Bigger than a Corolla, the Prius is still smaller than a Camry.

Adding to the challenge for other hybrid car makers, the 800 pound gorilla is having babies. The just-introduced Prius V has a bigger rear hatch for more storage space, while the soon-to-come Prius C is a smaller "city car" version. Plus, there's a plug-in Prius coming, too.

The less expensive Prius C, in particular, might attract new buyers to the Prius, said Turner. But even this vehicle probably won't create any more hybrid buyers, he said. It will just pull buyers away from other hybrid models.

Toyota, for its part, thinks the Prius V will attract new hybrid buyers who've found other hybrids lacking in storage space.

There's only one thing that will sell more hybrid cars, said Turner.

"Gas prices will have to go up," he said. "That's it." To top of page

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