car in the United States, the original Honda Insight, reported its first 17 sales in December 1999. One decade and 1.5 million hybrids later, the auto industry is ready to embrace hybrids and other green cars like never before.
What are the major trends we expect as hybrid cars boldly move into the first year of their second decade? Read on and prepare for the green car movement to shift into warp speed.
Plug-ins Finally Arrive
News of the Fisker Karma will get drowned out by Chevy Volt Mania 2010. Bob Lutz, GM’s Volt executive sponsor for the Volt, promised a media blitz for the company’s green car poster child. In September 2009, Lutz said that once GM has about 200 preproduction Volts in stock, it will “pull out the heavy artillery and get Volt buzz.”’ So, much of 2010 will be an extended drum roll for the Chevy Volt until the first production models roll off the line around November. All indications suggest the Volt will be worth the wait, notwithstanding low production numbers, limited availability mostly in California, and a price tag north of $40,000.
Hybrid Sales Return to GrowthThe first plug-in hybrids and electric cars will mostly have symbolic value—and not much real impact on the size of the hybrid market. Meanwhile, sales of conventional hybrids are expected to grow for the first time since the big jump from about 250,000 sales in 2006 to 350,000 in 2007. The Great Recession wiped out the auto market in the second half of 2008, taking hybrids along with it. Hybrids have performed better than the overall market during the doldrums—but lack of consumer credit, a general economic malaise, and relatively low gas prices have meant a slow recovery.
A number of factors might conspire to lift hybrid sales back to 2007 levels—and help hybrids reach 3 or 4 percent of the new car market. We expect Toyota to increase production and output, and Ford—coming of the critical success of the 2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid—to get more aggressive with hybrid marketing and sales. The most significant is the price at the pumps. As 2009 winds down, the price of oil remains within striking distance of $100 a barrel. If oil prices surge and average national gas prices climb above $3 a gallon in 2010, expect hybrid sales to heat up like hotcakes again. Other factors include overall growth in the car market, increased hybrid and battery production capacity, and new models rolling out—both from hybrid stalwarts like Toyota and Honda, and newcomers such as Hyundai, BMW, Mercedes, Porsche and Dodge. Remember, the clock is ticking as car companies brace for the increase in national efficiency standards beginning in 2012.
New Models & EntrantsIn addition to the plug-in hybrids mentioned earlier, a new set of carmakers will begin making hybrids. This will begin to break Toyota’s hybrid hegemony, and provide some level of competition for second-runners Honda and Ford (as they try to take market share from Toyota). Here’s a brief rundown.
Honda's Two New Small Hybrids: CR-Z Hybrid and Fit HybridHonda’s stated hybrid philosophy has been to focus on small affordable models. The 2010 Honda Insight bombed in 2009, but Honda isn't going to give up so easily. The company will try again in 2010 with the release of the 2011 Honda CR-Z Hybrid and the Honda Fit Hybrid. Last May, Japan's Nikkei business daily reported that Honda will roll out the Fit Hybrid in Japan in fall 2010—about a year and a half ahead of the original schedule. Honda remains tight-lipped about details, including the date for a US release. Consider that the current conventional Fit carries a 1.5-liter engine and averages 30 miles to the gallon—and reports from Japan’s Nihon Keizai Shimbun that Honda is developing a 1-liter-class engine for the Fit. If the reports prove true and that configuration makes it to the US, the Honda Fit Hybrid could reclaim the mpg crown for Honda.
The CR-Z Hybrid is Honda’s other small hybrid expected in 2010. First unveiled two years ago at the Tokyo Motor Show, it’s a sporty two-passenger coupe that mates a 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine to Honda's proprietary Integrated Motor Assist technology and a six-speed manual gearbox. That would make the CR-Z the only hybrid on the market with a manual transmission. Light, sporty and futuristic are the keywords.
BMW's High-Horsepower Hybrids: X6 Hybrid and Active 7 HybridThe BMW X6 is a crossover SUV that has crossed over into sports car territory. The company calls the vehicle a “sport activity coupe.” Its chief characteristics are a sleek profile, sloping roofline, low-slung stance, short front overhang, long rear overhang, long wheelbase, muscular wheel arches, large wheels, four-wheel drive, stability control, and lots of performance. The X6 will probably get an unhybrid-like 480-horsepower 4.8-liter V8 engine—yielding acceleration from a standstill to 60 mph in about 5 seconds. The 20 percent improvement compares to the conventional X6 is less impressive. But if luxury and high horsepower—with a smidgen of fuel efficiency restraint—is your thing, you might also consider the BMW ActiveHybrid 7, also due in 2010. It’s the fastest-accelerating hybrid sedan in the world, according to BMW. Expect fuel economy about 15 percent better than the 750i, which gets 15 mpg in the city and 22 mpg on the highway.
- Chevy Silverado Hybrid, developed in the same collaborative program that produced the Ram Hybrid, is selling about 200 units per month. Rising gas prices could conceivably convince Chrysler to produce the Ram Hybrid in bigger numbers, but pickup buyers shouldn’t hold their breath. Nonetheless, the technology is impressive: a multi-displacement 5.7-liter pushrod HEMI V8 gas engine mated to two 60kW electric motors allows the truck to use electricity, four-cylinder, eight-cylinders, or a combination thereof, to minimize fuel use and still provide three tons of towing capacity.
The Prius Evolves
With the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf threatening to steal the green car halo, the company is accelerating its plans for a plug-in version of the Prius. It won’t become available until 2011, but expect news about its trial run of 500 plug-in Priuses to continue to gain attention. At the same time, rumors of an entire Prius family of cars—from a subcompact hybrid to a crossover—will continue to percolate. We suspect those rumors to turn into real product announcement as early as the 2010 Detroit Auto Show in January. By the time a family of Priuses hit the market, the automotive world will be well on its way to offering 30 or 40 hybrids of all shapes and sizes, from low-cost to high-horsepower, from vehicles that barely save any fuel to ones that run almost exclusively on electric power.