Sales of hybrid gas-electric cars outperformed the overall market in January—showing an 11 percent gain compared to January 2009. The overall market was essentially flat compared to one year ago. The red down arrows all over this month’s Hybrid Market Dashboard result from a 31 percent dip in sales compared to December, when dealers were clearing inventory and offering year-end incentives. Post-holiday sales in January usually show a dip.

Prius continues to carry the weight for the whole hybrid market, representing about half of all hybrid sales. Just about every other model fell year-over-year. The rise in Prius sales—4.5 percent compared to a year ago—was enough to lift the entire market by the 11 percent. Low gas prices, around $2.75 as a national average, aren’t providing any boost for hybrid sales.

Even though the Toyota brand and the Prius’s image suffered blows in the past few weeks, we don’t expect January’s pattern to significantly change for most of this year. Consumers appear to be distinguishing between Toyota’s large recall for unintended acceleration and the company’s much smaller “software upgrade” to improve the Prius’s brake feel. More important for hybrid-oriented consumers, there’s still little competition for the Prius. The Ford Fusion Hybrid continues to rack up awards, including the Car of the Year at January’s Detroit auto show, but its success will probably mean stealing a few Camry Hybrid sales and higher take rates for the hybrid version of the Fusion, rather than any erasing of Prius’s lead.

Nonetheless, Ford maintained its position as the second biggest seller of hybrids in the US. The company is pursuing the industry’s most consistent and well-articulated strategy for higher fuel efficiency, starting with more efficient gas engines all the way to pure electric vehicles. That will pay off in the long run, but no new Ford hybrid introductions are planned for this year and production of current hybrid models are not expected to significantly increase.

Expect Best Ever Hybrid Incentives

There are signs that Toyota dealers have begun offering attractive incentives on the Prius in February. We have a suspicion that Prius is going to make headlines when February sales numbers show steady, if not increasing, sales—even coming at the heels of the recalls. Clearly, some deals are available now. Kelley Blue Book says Prius selling prices have dropped by $1,000 to $1,500.

Sales of Honda’s hybrids, including the Insight and Civic, remain lackluster, and word on the street shows that the two-seater Honda CR-Z, coming out soon, does not appeal enough either on the fuel economy or performance level to be a sensation. Maybe it’s time for Honda to lower the price of the Insight, so it stands a chance of fulfilling its promise as an affordable hybrid.

So, the pattern is set for the coming months—continued slow and steady growth in hybrids, outperforming the overall market. This pattern could be disrupted in two scenarios. If the Prius recall encounters any hitches, the hybrid market could take a dive along with Prius sales. On the other hand, if gas prices jump up as drivers take to the road in the spring and early summer—or if geo-political event cause a small spike in oil prices—hybrid sales could more quickly grow. Meanwhile, the most ardent green car early adopters are counting down the days to the November introduction of the Prius’s biggest threats for the green halo—the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf.

January 2010 Hybrid Car Sales Numbers

Hybrids sold in the US (January 2010): 17,157

US hybrid sales for January 2010

Model Units vs. last month vs. January 2009 CYTD vs. CYTD 2009
Prius 8,484 -27.9% 4.5% 8,484 4.5%
Insight 1,307 -20.3% n/a 1,307 n/a
HS 250h 1,247 -37.0% n/a 1,247 n/a
Fusion 1,091 -29.9% n/a 1,091 n/a
Altima 1,059 25.8% 64.4% 1,059 64.4%
RX450h 1,016 -36.4% -34.7% 1,016 -34.7%
Camry 867 -42.7% -24.0% 867 -24.0%
Escape 641 -38.1% -14.9% 641 -14.9%
Highlander 526 -48.9% -46.5% 526 -46.5%
Civic 253 -46.3% -76.5% 253 -76.5%
Tahoe 153 -52.0% -48.8% 153 -48.8%
Silverado 97 -62.3% n/a 97 n/a
Mariner 74 -38.8% -41.7% 74 -41.7%
Yukon 73 -59.4% -56.5% 73 -56.5%
Malibu 67 -49.2% -53.8% 67 -53.8%
Milan 61 -53.1% n/a 61 n/a
Escalade 52 -70.3% -60.6 52 -60.6%
GS450h 41 -24.1% 0.0% 41 0.0%
Aura 25 -84.3% -31.6% 25 31.6%
Vue 14 -92.5% -90.8% 14 -90.8%
LS600hL 9 -40.0% -72.7% 9 -72.7
All hybrids 17,157 -31.9% 11.1% 17,157 11.1%
All vehicles 698,346 -32.2% 6.31% 698,346 6.31%