Hybrid car sales statistics

Economic downturn spells hard times for hybrids

How many hybrids are there on US roads? Hybrid car sales statistics are not readily available from government sources, but a rough estimate, based on sales of hybrids in the US from January 2004 to April 2012, has about 2.18 million hybrid cars and SUVs sold in the US.

There has been a big upward spike in sales of hybrid cars from November 2011 to April 2012 - and it's not rising gas prices that is driving up the sales. Instead, it is the growing availability of hybrid models, as more and more carmakers get into the hybrid business or add new hybrid models.

The best month on record for hybrid car sales was March 2012, with 48,206 units sold. That just slightly beats the previous record of May 2007, with 47,096.

I don't own a hybrid - I don't drive enough to justify buying one. I do, however have a hybrid bicycle - meaning it uses a combination of electric power and human power. It's just one of many changes I've made to my lifestyle to be more energy efficient, as I explain on my About me page.

According to the US Bureau of Transportation Statistics, there were 194 million passenger vehicles in use in 2009. By the end of 2009 1.5 million hybrids had been sold, so even assuming every hybrid car sold in the last five years is still on the road, less than 1% of US light passenger vehicles are gas-electric hybrid cars.

If you count light duty vehicles with longer wheelbases in the overall numbers, the hybrid share is even lower.

Hybrid car sales statistics have shown steady growth over most of the last six years, but sales peaked in early 2007 (at 45,000 vehicles), had a slump then rebounded to a slightly lower peak in early 2008, and showed a steady decline through mid to late 2008 and the first quarter of 2009. There was a brief rebound in mid-2009 that sputtered out until early 2011, when rising energy prices and a gradual recovery of the US economy drove up demand.

Unfortunately the Tohoku earthquake in March 2011 caused a sudden and sharp decline in production of Japanese made hybrids, including the Toyota Prius, which has been the leader in hybrid sales from the outset. You can see this slump taking effect from April through October of 2011, with November being the closest we've come to March levels, and the first month since March where sales have outpaced those of a year earlier.

Take a look at this chart, which shows three data series: hybrid car sales statistics by month, a 12-month moving average of hybrid car sales, and average US gas prices per gallon, from January 2004 to November 2011:

Hybrid car sales statistics, January 2004 to March 2009

Hybrid cars are in some respects a luxury item: they have a higher up-front cost than many gas-only cars, and unless you drive a lot, their payback period due to lower mileage costs is longer than most people can afford. So when gas prices go up, more people can cost justify a purchase, and when gas prices fall and there's a major economic recession, demand and prices plummet.

The chart above shows just that: the 12-month running average (red line) peaked just before gas prices hit record levels, and both monthly sales and average sales declined steadily as gas prices fell and the economy tanked.

Now with gas prices (green line) towards the high end of their price range in the past two years, and with the economy slowly but surely recovering ground, we see the running average for hybrid sales moving upward sharply from its post-earthquake slump.

There are some bright lights on the horizon though. Sales of Toyota's flagship hybrid, the Prius, fell substantially in early 2009, but this is likely because buyers were anticipating Toyota's release of its new, better mileage, third-generation Prius. Indeed, for November 2009, Prius sales were up 20.7 percent over the same month in 2008, so people may have been holding out for the next generation Prius.

Still others may be staying put until the first plug in hybrids are made available. The Toyota plug-in Prius made its North American debut at the Los Angelos Auto Show on December 2 2009, but in all likelihood the bad publicity Toyota received in 2010 following several safety recalls, including one for existing Toyota Prius models, had a negative impact on sales.

As for the plug-in model, which hit some American states in early 2012, it is still unproven technology from the North American market's perspective, although demand is likely to outpace supply for some time. The range of the current model on electric charge only is a mere 12 miles.

In spite of Toyota's Prius recall problems, the Prius continues to be the leader in hybrid car sales, with about 3 out of every 5 hybrids sold in the US being Prius models. In fact Prius sales were almost 10 times more than the next biggest seller in November 2011 (the Lexus CT 200h).

What are hybrid cars?

Hybrid cars use a gasoline or diesel engine to power a motor. When the power of the motor is not required to move the vehicle, the motor can shut off, saving energy, or can be used to generate electricity that is stored in batteries, and later used to power the car. Breaking can also be used to store power in the batteries, by using magnetic rather than friction brakes.

The simplest hybrids merely turn the motor off when the car does not require locomotion, while more advanced hybrids use the electric motor wherever possible, and only engage the gasoline engine when additional power is required or the battery is low. The original Honda Civic hybrid was a simple hybrid in that sense.

Best hybrid cars

The two hybrid cars that get the most attention these days are the Toyota Prius and Honda Insight. I have several friends who own Toyota Prius hybrids - and all of them are very satisfied owners.

I've only met one owner of an Insight; it was an early model, a sporty car but impractical for a family. Current Honda Insights don't offer much more in the way of fuel efficiency over a standard car (and are 15% less efficient than current Prius models), so I'm not convinced the Insight is a viable fuel efficient car. Judging by the scarcity of Insight cars on the road, my view seems to be shared by consumers.

More and more automakers are adding hybrid capability to existing car lines. For example, Toyota has added hybrid capability to some Camry, Highlander, RX, GS, and LS models, Honda has offered Civic and Accord hybrids for several years (although the mileage for both vehicles has been poor compared to other hybrids such as the Prius), while Nissan has joined the race with its Altima hybrid (which gets fairly lackluster mileage too).

Even the big Three are in on the game, although they just don't seem to get it - most of GM's hybrids (other than the Malibu) are big trucks, which means you have to buy a big gas guzzler to get the superior mileage a hybrid offers! Ford offers the Escape and Fusion, and Chrysler offers the Aspen Hybrid, another honking big SUV.

If you're looking for the best hybrid car, you are probably looking at three main factors:

Based on the above, I would say the Toyota Prius is the best hybrid car. Hybrid car sales statistics certainly bear this out - it has been the top selling hybrid for most of its history.

It also gets the best mileage of any hybrid car, and Toyota recently re-engineered it so it should be even better. And if my three Prius-wielding friends are any indication, this is a car that makes its owners very happy, and proud.

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