Hybrid Car Horserace Heats Up in 2010

Horse Race

Although hybrid cars currently account for less than 3 percent of auto sales, major car companies are fighting for position to become leaders in gas-electric technology. Every day brings more news that auto executives see electric-drive cars as the key to future prosperity.

Toyota, the current leader by a wide margin, is planning to double its hybrid production by next year—mostly by adding about 10 new models. Reports this week indicate that the company could sell 1 million hybrids every year, as early as 2011. On Tuesday, Toyota announced that it will guarantee a flow of lithium—the key to the next generation of advanced auto batteries—by taking a 25 percent stake in an Argentina-based lithium production project. This shows how Toyota is playing the hybrid game for keeps. Access to key components have created bottlenecks in hybrid production in the past.

Honda, once neck-and-neck with Toyota in hybrid technology, has experienced one blunder after the next in its hybrid marketing efforts. But it’s not giving up. Honda CEO Takanobu Ito, speaking at the Detroit auto show last week, said that he wants “to develop and expand our hybrids.” He challenged his research and development staff to produce a hybrid that beats the Toyota Prius in fuel economy.

The company will have to dig out from a series of mishaps. Honda introduced the Accord Hybrid with an emphasis on performance over efficiency and then canceled the car due to poor sales. The company aimed for hybrid affordability with the 2010 Honda Insight, but priced the car too close to the Civic Hybrid and Prius. Sales have been disappointing. And its next hybrid, the CR-Z hybrid sport coupe, due later this year, is small, lacks sports-caliber horsepower, and will have so-so fuel economy in the mid-30 mpg range. Ito is right to go back to the hybrid drawing board, and to begin introducing hybrids in the company’s Acura luxury brand.

On a happier note, Ford is on the rise. Last week, the Ford Fusion Hybrid received the North American Car of the Year Award. In 2009, Ford bypassed Honda to become the second largest seller of hybrids in the United States. Sales of the Fusion/Milan and the Escape SUV hybrid tallied to about 32,000—eclipsing Honda, although still one-sixth that of Toyota’s US hybrid sales. Moreover, Ford is on track to introduce an all-electric car, the Ford Focus EV in 2011, and a plug-in hybrid version of the Escape Hybrid.

Plug-in Cars Make Things Even More Interesting

Meanwhile, the Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid and all-electric Nissan Leaf are waiting in the wings—for limited introduction later this year. Both General Motors and Nissan have been almost completely left out of the current hybrid race. GM’s hybrid offerings include gas-electric sedans, SUVs, and pickups—but sales have been negligible. Nissan has only offered the Altima Hybrid in a handful of states. So the Volt and Leaf could be turnaround vehicles for the company’s electric-drive plans.

However, a growing number of critics warn that market adoption of cars with large expensive lithium ion batteries will take time. This month’s IEEE Spectrum magazine published a scathing criticism of the Chevy Volt’s market prospects. The article praised the Volt’s technology and capabilities, but suggested that higher costs will appeal only to “people who tile their roofs with photovoltaic cells, harvest the energy they expend on their StairMasters, or live underground in hobbit holes to conserve heat.” Spectrum author Philip Ross points to conventional hybrids as a better solution, as does John Petersen of Seeking Alpha, who writes that conventional hybrids “have proven themselves over the course of a decade in over a million vehicles worldwide…[while plug-in cars] have no meaningful track record in the real world, and promise more than they can hope to deliver.”

The merits and fallacies of these anti-EV arguments will be debated over and over again in the blogosphere in 2010—as the countdown to the Volt and Leaf continues. And as every global carmaker cranks up its R&D departments and turns up its marketing efforts to promote their place in the hotter-than-ever hybrid race.

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  • Charles

    I think we may be blessed to live in interesting times, at least for the next two years.

    Toyota seems to be taking an aggressive path on hybrids, but a much more cautious track on BEVs and plug in hybrids.

    Ford looks like it has taken a shotgun approach. Ford has best in class hybrids on sale now, with BEVs and plug ins coming in the next two years. I wonder if Ford has any plans to take on the best hybrid (Prius if you were wondering).

    Honda, has not shown any signs of understanding the hybrid market in the US, even though Honda started it (US not world). Honda does not have a best in class hybrid. I do not think that the new CR-Z will change Honda’s position.

    If anybody understands hybrids less than Honda, it must be GM. GM tried to pawn off stop/stop technology as hybrids. GM has some good hybrid technology, but only seems to be able to use if for very expensive trucks and large SUVs. GM’s end run with the Volt looks like a desperation move. I hope it works.

    Nissan, started off hating hybrids, and I am not sure that has changed. Needing a hybrid for marketing Nissan just repackaged Toyota’s hybrid components into their Altima. Now Nissan is trying an end run of its own with the BEV Leaf. I hope it works, but I do not expect any BEV to be a game changer.

    There are so may holes in the current hybrid line up. I really hope somebody builds a Mazda 5 type hybrid, or plug in hybrid. I think the sweet spot for plug ins is 15-30 mile all electric range with a top speed of 70MPH. Time will tell.

  • Nelson Lu

    Charles, the Prius is the most efficient hybrid, for sure. I disagree that it is still the best hybrid. (I believe that honor now goes to the Fusion/Milan.)

  • Charles

    Nelson, you may be correct. If it is not the Prius, it is the Fusion/Milan. The Prius is the best hatchback. The Fusion/Milan the best mid-size sedan. The Escape the best small/mid-size SUV. GM has the best large truck and SUV hybrids, but nothing that gets just 20 MPG is a good vehicle. I would also agree that the Fusion/Milan is the best hybrid sedan regardless of size, beating the Civic and HS 250h.

  • Mr.Bear

    No, if anyone doesn’t understand hybrids/EVs, it’s Fiat-Chrysler who still has no viable plan for a hybrid/EV sedan, hatchback, economy, etc. car. All they have is a golf cart with racing stripes.

  • Samie

    I have not seen a full lineup of hybrids from any car company yet. Until we see Toyota go after Ford with an updated Hybrid Camry to challenge the Hybrid Fusion or use a small hybrid SUV to challenge the Escape (like a Toyota RAV4), or a sub-compact hybrid to woe the young professional, all we have right now are niche markets with little or no real competition. The Escape and the Toyota RAV4 should be receiving overhauls for 2011-2012 so we will see if these two manufactures are serious about updating hybrid technology. Also could Ford offer a smaller Hybrid Focus to compete with the Prius? Regardless, I see Ford and Toyota being the only companies within the near future to offer a full lineup of hybrid vehicles.

    The rest of the field, GM, who Fiat-Chrysler? oh Jeep, Kia/Hyundai, and Honda have some problems or can only put EV or hybrid technology into one flagship model. If we see gasoline prices in the near future spike upward to $4-5 those with a full lineup of hybrids will rack in the profits, while others will yet again get caught with their pants down. Some shock may be avoid if traditional cars like the 2011 Chevy Cruze come popular with consumers.

    I disagree with a comment about the Nissan Leaf not being a game changer. This could be a hot car and if Nissan does not trip on itself with production problems or recalls the limitations of the Leaf may be accepted by consumers who live in urban areas or work close to home, yes it would be a niche market but if Nissan takes this seriously, over time they may be able to push battery limitations up to say 400-500mi and branch out and offer a luxury version of the Leaf also.

  • Robert J Naumann

    When will someone come out with a highly efficient turbodiesel hybrid in a sports car? That would be the best of all worlds.

  • Ralph Colangione

    I own a 2010 Ford fusion hybrid.it truely Rocks.With gas mileage way beyond 41 mpg.The highest I got was 99.9 in city on level ground.It rides like Lexus andlooks like a Lexus but usesgas like Volkswagon.With high tech features I am still learning about.

  • Austin Auto Glass

    Although hybrid cars are not being used by many people now, i am pretty sure that they will be used widely in the coming years.

  • juxtapos99

    I’ve been waiting to buy a new car for 3 years so I can get a decent mid-sized plug-in (hybrid or EV). I think there’s lots of us waiting on the sidelines as technology changes.

    The more press coverage plug-ins and hybrids get, the less mainstream consumers will be willing to buy regular gas-powered cars because they’ll seem obsolete. It’s like going out today and buying a brand-new, low-def CRT television.

  • ulisse di bartolomei

    Speaking about the Fiat hybrids, the technology double clutch with electric motor between has been stolen by a patent that Fiat Company has never wanted to purchase, but only shamelessly to copy. I invite to visit my blog where her “vitality” of the Fiat planners it appears in all of evidence:

    Whoever appreciates an honest industrial ethics in defence of intellectual ownership should spread out the history reported in my blog. If the industries can afford unpunished to copy the ideas and defending it need very expensive legal action, to which target need the patents? How our young people can find intellectual courage if the economic potentates crush the rights of the single ones?

    Ulisse Di Bartolomei