A year ago, we predicted the hybrid market would resume growth in 2011—after three years of sliding sales. That didn’t pan out. Compared to 2010, last year’s sales of gas-electric vehicles fell by 2.2 percent—so, the slide continued for a fourth year. Yet, the essentially flat sales could be viewed as decent, considering the severe impact of the March 2011 Japanese earthquake on the supply of gas-electric and purely electric vehicles.

As we move into spring 2012, the same things we said last year about hybrid growth are true again. Gas prices are key—and trouble in the Middle East could lead to $5 a gallon gas by summer. Just in time, Toyota (the hybrid stalwart) is rolling out new versions of the Prius—while Volkswagen (the hybrid laggard) is finally putting its first viable gas-electric vehicle on sale. That means an almost certain growth in hybrids in 2012, even if by only a few percentage points.

Most analysts agree that hybrids are entering the mainstream—mostly as an engine choice on an established model, rather than a new hybrid-only nameplate. Offering a hybrid has become the price for admission as automakers try to meet tougher fuel economy standards.

Barring unforeseen catastrophes—2012 appears to be the year of the green car comeback. Here are the major trends for the year.

More Electric Car Choices

Last year was a landmark year for EVs. There were regional launches of the Nissan LEAF and the Chevy Volt. These two plug-in cars were the start of a new era for electrified personal transportation. But two models—selling a combined 19,000 units—is a fraction of one percent of new car sales. That’s a drop in the bucket, especially compared to the amount of buzz and online chatter these two cars created.

The story starts to change in 2012, when these two plug-in cars will be joined by approximately 10 more models that use household electricity for automotive fuel. The list includes Ford Focus Electric, Coda Electric Sedan, Fisker Karma, Honda Fit EV, Mitsubishi i, Toyota RAV4 EV, Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid, and the Tesla Model S. The key question is if the market needs so many electric choices—especially considering the slow start for Volt and LEAF sales in 2012.

Prius Times Four

In the world of hybrids, Prius remains the powerhouse brand. Toyota fully understands this. It also recognizes that only so many of its customers want a five-seat hatch. So the company decided to spread the love to multiple models targeted to different types of buyers. For years, Toyota—in its usual methodical style—has been researching, hinting, and unveiling what a family of Prii might look like.

In 2012, the project becomes fully realized. It started with the Prius wagon—dubbed V for Versatility—in late 2011. That model is joined by a plug-in version, of which Toyota aims to sell 15,000 units in the first year. By mid-year, the fourth model arrives in a downsized subcompact logically called the C for compact—which at $19,000 and 53 MPG in the city will short-circuit the calculators of hybrid critics who have long asserted that gas-electric cars aren’t worth it.

Diesel Maxes Out

VW Jetta TDI

The VW Jetta TDI continues to dominate the clean diesel market, but the number of diesel choices has plateaued at about a dozen models.

There was a time about four or five years ago that hybrid fans and diesel zealots hotly debated which, between the two, would become more popular. Diesel advocates argued that cleaner oil-burners deserved the designation as green, and besides the great torque and durability of its engines trumped slowpoke geeky hybrids any day of the week. Those debates are done. Despite some uptake in clean diesel sales over the past few years, we’re not seeing any new models hit the market.

The choice for clean diesel buyers has been stuck at about a dozen for the past few years, with no signs of change. All the buzz has moved to electrification—with both diesel and hybrid taking a backseat to plug-in models as the media darling (or the subject of derision by EV-haters). While diesel sales broke past 100,000 units in 2011—compared to 275,000 hybrids—that number is likely to move sideways in 2012.

CNG Goes National

VW Hybrid badge

For the past dozen or so years, the version of the Honda Civic that runs on compressed natural gas racked up awards as the greenest car in America. Yet, Honda doled out the Honda Civic CNG (formerly the Honda Civic GX) in small doses—only in a handful of states. The model also was a stripped down version lacking the creature comforts and amenities common to most new cars. But in 2012, Honda stretches its CNG distribution—expanding availability of the redesigned 2012 Civic GX to 38 US states.

The new Civic CNG starts at $26,115, and is now offered with more bells and whistles, such as a navigation system and premium stereo package. At the same time, fuel economy jumps by about 20 percent to 34 mpg in the city and 38 mpg highway—for a combined rating of 31 mpg. Is this a game-changer? Not really, because consumers are slow to adopt the unfamiliar gaseous fuel. Also, the Civic CNG is tuned for efficiency rather than performance. (It’s a dog of a drive.) Nonetheless, it’s one more alternative for those looking to drive solo in the carpool lane in California, and those willing to overlook the serious environmental consequences of natural gas fracking. If gas prices continue to climb, Honda could quickly sell the few thousand Civic CNGs it produces in 2012.

VW Finally Enters Hybrid Market

VW hybrid badge

Volkswagen will go down in automotive history as the last major carmaker to offer a hybrid. We’re not counting the limited-run ill-conceived $61,000 VW Touareg Hybrid, or the ultra-cool concept electrics it likes to unveil at major auto shows—but a true high-mpg relatively affordable gas-electric car. Maybe the wait will prove worth it.

Late last year, Volkswagen finally confirmed that by the end of 2012 it will be offer a Jetta Hybrid, to be rated at 45 mpg combined city/highway, with zero-to-sixty performance below nine seconds and all-electric capabilities to around 40 mph. We’re still in wait-and-see mode regarding the driving dynamics of the production version, and an exact price. Nonetheless, the Jetta Hybrid looks very promising—maybe even convincing enough to win over VW diesel fans to batteries and electric motors. Sales will only trickle out late in the year, but it paves the way for an even more interesting 2013.

Hybrid As Engine Choice

Perhaps the biggest news about hybrids in 2012 is that hybrids are not big news. In other words, there was a time when automakers rolled out a hybrid as if it was novel. Hybrids had to stand out with unique designs and unique nameplates. Now, after a dozen years on the market, buying a car with a side order of electricity is not a big deal. Consumers can go into a dealership, point to a design that they like—and decide what propulsion system matches their lifestyle and pocketbook: plain-vanilla gasoline internal combustion; turbocharged gas with or without direct injection; high-torque diesel; a gas-electric combo, some of which come with plugs; and pure electric. In this range, hybrids are the proven mainstream high-mpg option, rather than something that’s odd or exotic. That bodes well for the hybrid market, because the barriers (or stigmas) that prevented carmakers from making hybrids, and consumers from driving them, is quickly becoming a thing of the past.