The end of the year inevitably brings a frenzy of gift buying, holiday parties, and family visits. With so much to do, consumers probably won’t have car purchases foremost in their thoughts. So there’s a good chance that hybrid sales will end the year at levels similar to or slightly lower than those of November. Even if December sales follow last year’s trend and accelerate at year-end, 2006 hybrid sales should still come in at roughly a quarter-million units, a 20% increase from 2005. That’s impressive growth considering the overall vehicle sales grew just 2% in the past year.

Hybrids remain a tiny portion of the total vehicle market, but their share will continue to widen, particularly as new models enter the market. Early next year, Nissan will begin selling its Altima Hybrid, and Ford will launch restyled versions of its hybrid SUVs. It is possible that December sales will be impacted slightly as potential buyers wait for these models. The Altima, in particular, may prove to be a winner. The numbers suggest it will offer improved performance over the Camry Hybrid but with similar fuel economy, and it should attract buyers who already favor the Nissan brand. In the case of the Escape Hybrid, consumers shopping now must weigh the availability of cash incentives on the outgoing model against the new look of the freshened 2008 version.