What's So Hard to Understand About Hybrids? ~ Hybrid Car Review
Hybrid Car Review: What's So Hard to Understand About Hybrids?

Thursday, September 25, 2008

What's So Hard to Understand About Hybrids?

GM, Honda, Nissan, Ford, etc... They are all trying to figure out what makes Toyota Prius the leader in hybrid technology.  The Toyota Prius didn't get the best fuel economy raing, it wasn't the prettiest hybrid on the road.  It simply wasn't the best in a lot of categories.  But the Prius outsells the others hybrids on the road all the time.

People talk all the time about how the Prius has it all over the other hybrids for several reasons.  First, it's high mpg rating.  It's a dedicated hybrid, so it can't be compared easily. It's obviously a hybrid, allowing people to 'show-off' their green credentials.  It was one of the first hybrids, so it has a decade of sales to show people how reliable it is.  It has lots of fun gadgets inside to show you how well you're driving and conserving fuel, making it fun to drive.

But the Insight had all that and more.  It had a higher mpg rating.  It was the other 'first' hybrid on the road.   It was a dedicated hybrid.  It was very reliable. It had the mpg gauges.  It had green cred.

And yet, thousands bought the Prius, while the Insight sales had to trickle along.  It's pretty simple, really.  The Prius could seat four, while the Insight could only seat two.  Except for a few, most people couldn't justify buying a car, no matter the fuel efficiency, that could only transport two at a time.

That's what makes me laugh so hard at the futuristic concepts you see all the time for cars.  They're almost always one seater commuter cars.  Who's going to buy that?  How can you take anyone else out to lunch at the office?  Meet and drive around clients?  Go out with your friends, family or whoever when you're not at work.  Who's going to spend that much money on a covered motorcycle?

And what about those other hybrids on the road.  Ford brought out the first hybrid SUV.  You would think it would do very well, considering how popular SUVs are.  The Escape Hybrid (and Mariner Hybrid) are the most fuel efficient SUVs on the road), but Ford has never gotten behind the hybrid project.  They never brought the price down, making it hard to justify the price tag, no matter what the fuel savings would be.  Besides which, people interested in high fuel economy probably aren't interested in buying an SUV (which is why GM, Chrysler, and BMW mystify me with their two-mode hybrid project).

The Camry, Altima, and Civic are all very popular cars.  You would think a hybrid version of these sedans would do very well, but again sales have been limited so far.  The Accord Hybrid, now retired, was a hybrid failure.  But why?  It's simple really.  The Prius was compared against all the others and the others were found wanting.  The people interested in hybrid technology weren't interested in power (see the Accord hybrid), but in fuel efficiency.

So, when all those people talk about how having a dedicated hybrid helps the Prius because people don't have anything else to compare it to, they're wrong.  Consumers look at all the other sedans out there and compare them all to the Prius.  And the Prius wins.  It's relatively cheap (not really cheap, but compared to the other sedans, it's not out of sight).  And the fuel economy, even after the EPA changed the rules, still produces a 'wow' when people look at it.

Which is why I've wondered for years why the other car companies haven't seen that.  It's a small sedan that is big enough to fit four or five people that gets great gas mileage.  Why didn't the other car companies do the same thing?

Well, it seems that GM and Honda are finally getting it.  The new Honda Insight is going to be almost exactly like the Prius, only slightly cheaper.  That will make it very popular.  The Chevy Volt is going to get phenomenal mileage (in most driving conditions) and won't have the range limits or the fear of running out of juice that an all electric car would have.  Too bad it's going to cost twice as much as the Prius and the new Insight.  That's going to limit it.  Once again, despite not having a gas-only counterpart to compare it to, consumers are going to look at the field and compare the Volt against the Prius and the Insight.  I'm guessing a lot of people are going to wonder if it's worth the extra $20K.

Now if only the other car companies would get it.  Build a sedan (four or five seater) that gets over 40 mpg and is fun to drive (see the Toyota dashboard giving all that feedback) and you'll get sales.  Hit 50 mpg and you'll outsell the Prius tomorrow.

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