Sales trends for hybrid cars rise and fall with the Toyota Prius. Toyota usually sells as many units of the quintessential hybrid as all other gas-electric cars combined. But February was far from a usual month. Multiple safety recalls throughout February, including one issued on the 2010 Prius, threw the company into full damage control and put doubts into the hearts of car shoppers. As a result, Prius sales in February fell 6.1 percent compared to the previous month. Discounts on three-year Prius leases probably prevented even further losses.

Hybrid Shopper

Hybrid shoppers took a wait-and-see approach in February, as Toyota dealt with safety recalls.

As severe as these problems were, they were not as bad as the global economic meltdown from a year ago. In fact, Prius sales in February are up 10.2 percent compared to one year ago. Overall hybrid sales matched the Prius sales trends: Year-to-date sales for the first two months of 2010 are up 7.2 percent for the Prius and 7.1 percent for all hybrids.

Largely as a result of Toyota’s woes, February 2010 is one of the rare months where the rate of hybrid sales lagged behind overall vehicle sales, which jumped by 11.1 percent compared to the 3.7 percent decline in hybrid sales. February’s percent market share—at 2.12 percent—is the lowest for hybrids since 1.97 percent in December 2008. Last year, hybrids nearly reached 3 percent of the new car market and are forecast to climb by approximately a single point of market share every year for the coming few years. It remains to be seen how long Toyota is embroiled in safety recalls and how that will affect hybrid sales.

Toyota misfortunes were good news for hybrid second-runners, Ford and Honda. Sales of the Honda Insight increased 54.1 percent compared to last month, and the Ford Fusion Hybrid jumped by 13.2 percent.

Short-term Numbers vs. Long-Term Global Trends

Premium hybrids from Lexus, Toyota’s luxury division, suffered as a result of recalls—as well as continued sluggishness in the economy. The most affordable luxury hybrid, the Lexus HS 250h, sold well in January, but fell by 42.9 percent in February. General Motors hybrids seems to be stuck in neutral, if not moving in reverse, as the company sells the remaining handful of discontinued Saturn hybrids still left on dealership lots. Gains from other GM hybrid models, such as the Cadillac Escalade Hybrid and Chevy Silverado Hybrid are inconsequential to the overall hybrid market, because production numbers are so low.

Other negative factors for hybrid sales include relatively low gas prices and big incentives offered on conventional cars.

On the global front, it’s a different story for Prius. The 2010 Toyota Prius retained its top spot in the overall Japanese market for the ninth straight month, posting 27,008 sales—more than three times the number sold in the US. Toyota also sold 538 Priuses in the UK in February, doubling sales from a year ago.

Despite the low number for Toyota and others, the global auto show circuit continues to put hybrids and electric-drive vehicles in the spotlight—with promises for big production increases in the coming years, especially as tougher regulations push automakers to higher fuel efficiency and reduced carbon emissions.

February 2010 Hybrid Car Sales Numbers

Hybrids sold in the US (February 2010): 16,530

US hybrid sales for February 2010

Model Units vs. last month vs. February 2009 CYTD vs. CYTD 2009
Prius 7,968 -6.1% 10.2% 16,452 7.2%
Insight 2,014 54.1% n/a 3,321 n/a
Fusion 1,235 13.2% n/a 2,326 n/a
Camry 1,011 16.6% -51.4% 1,878 -41.7%
RX450h 890 -12.4% -40.7% 1,906 -37.7%
HS 250h 712 -42.90% n/a 1,959 n/a
Escape 702 9.5% -40.1% 1,343 -30.2%
Altima 619 -41.5% 33.7% 1,678 51.6%
Civic 346 36.8% -74.6% 599 -75.4%
Highlander 339 -35.6% -64.5% 865 -55.4%
Escalade 146 180.8% 4.8% 198 -27.0%
Silverado 106 9.3% 126% 203 -275%
Yukon 86 17.8% -51.5% 159 -53.9%
Tahoe 83 -45.8% -73.7% 236 -61.6%
Milan 82 34.4% n/a 143 n/a
Mariner 80 8.1% -34.4% 154 -38.2%
Malibu 68 1.5% -65.5% 135 -60.5%
GS450h 22 -46.3% 0.0% 63 0.0%
LS600hL 15 66.7% -31.8% 24 -56.4
Vue 4 -71.4% -97.9% 18 -94.7%
Aura 2 -92.0% -91.3% 27 -35.7%
All hybrids 16,530 -3.7% 3.2% 33,687 7.1%
All vehicles 780,265 11.1% 13.1% 1,478,611 9.8%