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After three years of declining sales, hybrid gas-electric cars will resume a growth trajectory in 2011. That’s due to two reasons: high gas prices and great new hybrid cars.
In the first weeks of January 2011, the price of oil has flirted with $100 a barrel—while the average cost of a gallon of petrol has tripped a first-level tipping point of three bucks. Energy forecasters don’t see the roller coaster riding to $4 as it did in mid-2008, but they do expect a long and sustained period of high gas prices—the biggest factor in spurring consumer interest in hybrids.
At the same time, the list of new hybrids heading to market—combined with attractive products that debuted in 2010—means that consumers have a better selection in fuel-efficient high-mpg hybrids than ever before. Here are the highlights.
Toyota Prius Wagon Arrives
Prius is by far the best-selling and most trusted brand in hybrids. Toyota will build on that foundation by expanding Prius into an entire line of vehicles that the company expects will eventually outsell all other Toyota models. The Prius expansion begins in mid-2011 with the introduction of the Prius V—a version of the classic gas-electric model with almost 60 percent more cargo room (while keeping its seating configuration for five passengers).
The Prius V is Toyota’s direct response to a ton of customer feedback. “Consumers have told Toyota that they love the idea of the Prius—high fuel-efficiency, low emissions, advanced technology—but the vehicle selling today doesn’t fit their lifestyle and needs,” Doug Coleman, Toyota’s Prius product manager, told HybridCars.com. Toyota’s answer is a hybrid with all the versatility and comfort of a family hauler while delivering city mileage of 42 mpg and highway economy of 38 mpg. Add a panoramic moonroof and Toyota’s new Entune multimedia system to the attractive mix.
Hybrids Become Indispensable Luxury Feature
Nissan continues to trumpet pure electric cars as the ultimate answer to sustainable mobility—but will make gas-electric drivetrains the solution to efficient luxury. The Infiniti M35h Hybrid, coming in spring 2011, will allow luxury buyers to keep all the desired horsepower and high-end features, but no longer guzzle gas. Infiniti has not released fuel economy numbers but on several occasions has stated the system will deliver fuel mileage comparable to the Nissan Versa’s 1.8-liter four—28 mpg city/34 highway. That’s a huge leap beyond the new M37’s (the 2011 replacement for the M35) numbers of 18 city/26 highway. That’s just the beginning of Infiniti hybrids. Larry Dominque, Nissan North America’s vice president of product planning for the Americas, says the M hybrid system was designed to fit all of Infiniti’s rear-wheel-drive models, including the G sedan and coupe and the EX and FX crossovers.
Lexus executives have said they will make hybrid technology, and sporty driving, the hallmarks of the luxury brand. The line’s newest, coolest and highest mpg model is coming in March 2011—the Lexus CT 200h. Keywords: Efficient, Luxury, Compact, Hatchback. The 2011 Lexus CT 200h compact hybrid—like the 2010 Toyota Prius—features a 1.8-liter 98-horsepower gas engine and 80-hp electric motor for total system power of 134 hp. It’s capable of accelerating from 0-60 mph in 9.8 seconds and can reach a maximum speed of 112 mph. With a combined city-highway mileage of 42 mpg, it will be the first vehicle in the luxury segment to step over the 40-mpg line—and it will be Lexus’s fifth hybrid offering, the most of any automobile nameplate.
Meanwhile, Volkswagen chairman Martin Winterkorn recently said that hybrid and electric vehicles will account for three percent of the German carmaker’s global sales by 2018. The Touareg Hybrid will appear in mid-year—but the mainstream high-volume VW hybrid model we’re waiting for is the gas-electric version of the newly introduced Jetta. That might not come until 2012, but before the end of the year, we’ll see Audi, VW’s luxury brand, introduce the Audi Q5 Hybrid crossover and probably the A6 Hybrid sedan.
Hyundai and Kia Enter Hybrid Market, With Great Cars
The Hyundai Sonata Hybrid is the South Korean company’s first hybrid in the US market. Apparently, Hyundai took its time, scrutinized the hybrid competition, and attempted to outdo it in every respect. Coming in at $25,000, about four-grand less than the award-winning Ford Fusion Hybrid, the Sonata Hybrid has the Fusion beat in every category.
We prefer the Sonata’s aesthetics, but the hard numbers are unequivocal. The Sonata Hybrid offers 206 net horsepower compared to the Fusion’s 191 hp. The Sonata Hybrid’s aerodynamics, rated at a very slippery 0.25 drag of coefficient, is superior to the Fusion’s 0.33 Cd. The use of lithium batteries, rather than the Fusion’s nickel metal hydride, provides just as much power, but allows the Sonata to weigh 263 pounds less. Fuel economy for the Sonata and Fusion Hybrids are nearly identical, but with highway and city numbers swapped. The Sonata Hybrid offers 36 in the city and 40 on the highway, while the Fusion Hybrid is rated at 41/36.
And watch out for the Kia Optima Hybrid, the gas-electric Sonata’s cousin. The Optima Hybrid should carry an even smaller sticker price, and many reviewers are favoring its styling over the already attractive Sonata version.
This will be a make-or-break year for the $87,000 (or higher) plug-in hybrid. Year after year, Mr. Fisker promises that the gorgeous four-door Fisker Karma is really and truly coming next year. With a half-billion dollars of federal loans riding on Fisker’s fate—and its ability to move beyond the Karma model to the more accessible plug-in hybrid sedan known as Project Nina—Fisker needs to deliver…or risk losing all credibility. If the company can put a few Karmas on the road, it will produce a ton of buzz for plug-in hybrid technology—a value greater than the sum its low-volume sales will produce.
Hybrids Will Face Competition from 40-MPG Gas Cars
TIn 2010, automakers announced the introduction of the first super-efficient small gas cars—not hybrid and not diesel—rated above 40-mpg on the highway. Those models, just starting to appear on U.S. roads in early 2011, include the Ford Fiesta, Ford Focus, Chevy Cruze Eco, and Hyundai Elantra.
In 2011, reporters will be quick to say that gas engines—enhanced with turbocharging and direct injection—will mean the death of hybrids (considering that those models will be, on average, cheaper than models with gas-electric powertrains). However, two factors belie that argument. These fuel-frugal models barely squeak by the 40-mpg mark on the highway, but their city ratings are well below that mark. In fact, the most efficient Fiesta, Cruze and Elantra fall below 30 mpg in the city—leaving only hybrids with city/highway averages above 40 MPG. Furthermore, all of these models are compacts—while hybrids can deliver those industry-leading efficiencies in models as big as the mid-size hatchback Prius (which averages 50 MPG) or the even bigger Prius V (which is expected to average 40 miles per gallon).
EV Buzz Continues (at Lower Pitch)
While it’s well documented that many of the first buyers of electric cars—such as the Nissan LEAF, Chevy Volt (by definition a plug-in hybrid) and the upcoming Ford Focus Electric—will be former hybrid owners, we expect many more green-oriented customers to enter the market with their first hybrids. General Motors and Nissan will continue to generate as much heat as possible with their electric halo cars, but it’s Ford’s portfolio strategy that will generate the light—illuminating the future direction of the market for the full range of electric-drive cars. Ford believes that by 2020 as much as 25 percent of its sales will be electrified—but that 75 percent of those sales will be conventional hybrids like the Ford Fusion Hybrid.
Besides, it will be hard for EV-makers to maintain the level of buzz leading up to the LEAF and Volt, after the cars hit the road and the novelty starts to wear off.
Ford, General Motors, Toyota, Nissan, and Honda all feature pure no-tailpipe electric cars, to varying degrees, in their product roadmap—but every single one of them will produce hybrids (with or without a plug) in greater numbers in the coming years.
With higher fuel efficiency standards starting in 2012—based on how many are purchased not how many headlines they garner—it’s the good ol’ conventional gas-electric hybrid that will move into the mainstream, beginning with a solid expansion of models and sales in 2011. And a massive proliferation of hybrids, including 11 new hybrid models from Toyota alone, by 2012.