Since the first funky looking hybrid cars came on the U.S. scene in late 1999, Americans have now purchased over four-million examples of these gas-electric fuel savers.
Today there are three-dozen hybrid vehicles on offer – some which sell negligible numbers, others that pull more weight in the market – and despite inexpensive gas presently tamping down sales, the latest one-million sales came at a decent pace.
In October 2013 the U.S. recorded its three-millionth hybrid sale, meaning it took more than 13 years to reach that event. Unit number four million came two-and-a-half years later, and the tally through the end of April 2016 was 4,027,685.
Exactly which car was number four million is impossible to determine as these are aggregate sales for all U.S. manufacturers. More clear is the milestone has been passed, and through May, according to HybridCars.com Dashboard data, the tally is 4,058,258 and counting.
Not so incidentally, this HybridCars.com data is also borrowed by several authoritative sources including the U.S. government’s Alternative Fuels Data Center (AFDC), and is based itself mainly from automaker monthly reports.
Japan Number One
But while the milestone is significant, and verified, the U.S. is second place in hybrid sales to Japan, which saw launch of the Toyota Prius three years prior to the U.S. in 1997, and recorded its four-millionth cumulative hybrid vehicle sale in 2014.
Japan now has over five million sales recorded, and accounts for around 45 percent of a cumulative total of more than 11 million hybrids sold worldwide. The U.S. has purchased about 36 percent, Europe trails with 1.5 million, and all other countries combined add to more than 500,000.
Since 2009, thanks also to incentives, Japan has led the world as the top hybrid car market and U.S. sales were diminished following the 2008 economic crisis, and more recently low fuel prices, as mentioned.
Notable is since 2012, the top sellers in Japan have been Toyota’s Prius Liftback and Prius c (called the Aqua there).
Toyota has a lock-hold otherwise in its home market just like it does in the U.S.
In Japan, the company accounts for 4,380,000 sales. In the U.S. also, Toyota now owns 70 percent of the market.
Top U.S. Sellers
Unlike in Japan where the Prius Liftback (AKA the “regular” Prius) trades places with the smaller Prius c model – even surpassing sales of conventional new cars – in the U.S. the Prius has long dominated the hybrid sub-market with triple the sales volume of the next-nearest hybrid.
The Prius alone has sold 1,643,000 units in the U.S. since it was launched in 2000, and this amounts to 40.8 percent of all U.S. hybrid sales
Through April, the rest of the top 10 by cumulative sales are as follows:
2. Toyota Camry Hybrid – 345,640
3. Honda Civic Hybrid – 234,610 (now discontinued)
4. Fusion Hybrid – 166,341
5. Prius c – 165,075
6. Sonata Hybrid family – 160,417 (includes Kia Optima – shares the exact same powertrain)
7. Lexus RX400/450h – 157,062 units.
8. Prius v – 148,079
9. Highlander Hybrid – 133,760
10. Ford Escape family – 130,803 (discontinued since 2012, includes Mercury Mariner – shared the exact same powertrain)
A Bit of Recent History
Hybrid powertrains were experimented with more than 100 years ago, but this article speaks of the new era of computer-controlled modern hybrids.
The first such hybrid electric vehicle introduced to the U.S. was the Honda Insight and just 17 units were sold in 1999. The next year it sold 2,788 and the newly introduced Prius sold 5,562.
By 2002 there were three hybrids for sale, with the third being a Civic Hybrid, and in 2004 the new Ford Escape Hybrid sold 2,993 units, and the V6-based Accord Hybrid sold 1,061 units, but was discontinued three years later.
In 2006, as part of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 signed into law by President George Bush, tax credits were offered for up to $3,400 for hybrid cars and $4,000 was allotted for compressed natural gas vehicles.
That boost lasted until Dec. 31, 2010 when the focal gaze of policymakers shifted to plug-in cars – which still are eligible for greater incentives on the federal and state level.
By the end of 2010 the hybrid market had blossomed to 29 models. On the low side, as few as 50 Saturn Vues were sold in 2010 and on the upper reaches, 140,928 units were sold of the Prius.
Since late 2011 a similar upward trend that started slowly began for plug-in hybrids and all-electric cars.
Hybrids have been eclipsed by these new darlings of the green car movement so much so that some enthusiasts have been known to declare a hybrid-electric vehicle is not an “alternative energy” car because it still relies on gas.
In any case, the hybrid market is nearly classified as “mainstream,” though its higher take rate of 3.2 percent a couple years ago has dropped to just 2 percent of the U.S. market.
The entire U.S. passenger vehicle market however is also increasing, so this sliver, while smaller, represents a fair number of cars.
In 2013 when the year saw 3.19 percent hybrid sales, this was 495,685 vehicles out of 15,531,609 total passenger vehicles. In 2015, when hybrids finished the year art 2.21 percent market share, the U.S. bought 17,386,331 passenger vehicles, and hybrids tallied to 384,404.
Through May, hybrids are still down, get fewer headlines, but new models are improving with several sedans in the 40- to almost 50 mpg combined range, and a couple hatchbacks exceed 52 mpg.
This is far above the U.S. EPA’s average mpg which has hovered in the mid-upper 20s and the best hybrids already meet federal fuel efficiency standards for 2025.
Thanks to sales tracker Mario R. Duran with help in compiling data.