America’s High EV Costs Are Driving Buyers to Hybrids

Source: By Keith Naughton, Bloomberg • Posted: Thursday, October 5, 2023

Concerns about high sticker prices and limited charging infrastructure for electric cars are driving renewed interest in the gasoline-electric vehicles.

When Amber Lombardi went car shopping last year, she knew she needed an efficient vehicle able to haul a large trailer for her mobile dental practice. And it would be great if it could help provide electricity for some of her onboard equipment. The Ford F-150 pickup she chose has plenty of towing capability, and her drills and teeth-cleaning tools can draw juice from a 7.2-kilowatt generator built into the bed of the truck, powered by the same battery that helps propel it down the road.​

Lombardi’s truck isn’t one of Ford Motor Co.’s hot-selling F-150 Lightning electric pickups. It’s a gasoline-electric hybrid version of the venerable F-150, which costs less and still saves big on her fuel bills. “It just wasn’t within our reach to have a fully electric vehicle at this time,” says Lombardi, chief executive officer of Mainely Teethin Portland, Maine. “So this is kind of bridging our gap.”

More than a quarter-century ago, Toyota Motor Corp. introduced the Prius, a car with a new technology—a small gasoline engine paired with a relatively large battery—that would become a darling of the green movement. But in recent years those hybrids fell out of favor as automakers raced to develop fully electric vehicles, which captured generous government incentives and sparked the imaginations of forward-thinking drivers. Now hybrids are making a comeback as would-be electric vehicle buyers are increasingly put off by stiff sticker prices and spotty charging infrastructure.

US sales of hybrids have more than doubled since 2020 and are heading toward a 35% increase this year, according to researcher GlobalData. “The auto industry doesn’t function in a mode where you just flip a switch and everything’s different,” says Jeff Schuster, GlobalData’s executive vice president for automotive. Hybrids are “a way for the mass market to start edging into electric vehicles.”

To win over some of those customers, Ford is doubling production of its three-year-old F-150 hybrid and lowering the price by $1,900—making it about equal to the full-gasoline model, and almost 10% cheaper than the all-electric version it introduced in 2022. Ford aims to quadruple hybrid sales over the next five years and offer the technology across its lineup, even as it throttles back ambitious production plans for its fully electric models. “We have been surprised, frankly, at the popularity” of hybrids, Ford Chief Executive Officer Jim Farley said on an earnings call in July.

For drivers seeking to tow big trailers, hybrids are a better option than fully electric versions, because heavy loads sap the battery and reduce the range of an all-electric pickup. The F-150 hybrid combines an electric motor with a 3.5-liter V6 engine, giving it 430 horsepower, among the most powerful in the F-150 lineup. The 2023 model averages about 25 mpg, versus 21 mpg for a conventional F-150 with the same engine, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

GlobalData expects Toyota’s hybrid sales to rise 7.5% this year, to more than 600,000. About one-third of Toyota’s sales in the US are hybrids, and some models are only available as gas-electrics, including the Sienna minivan and Sequoia full-size SUV.

The Sienna has a waiting list of at least eight months, and Toyota would sell more hybrids as a percentage of its total—especially plug-in models—if it had more powertrains available, says Jack Hollis, Toyota’s US sales chief. “If you look at plug-in hybrids, it’s really growing fast,” he says. “We could easily double our plug-in hybrid” sales.

While plug-in hybrids—which come with a charging port like a fully electric vehicle—provide added flexibility, they also add thousands of dollars to the sticker price. Hollis says many American buyers are satisfied with cheaper so-called mild or rechargeable hybrids, especially when the vehicles are tuned to eke out more horsepower—even at the expense of fuel economy.

The number of hybrid models for sale in the US market is expected to grow to 369 by 2026, more than double the 164 on sale in the US in 2020, according to GlobalData. Hyundai Motor Co. and Honda Motor Co. also are major hybrid players that combined are expected to control 32% of the US market for gas-electric models this year.

Hybrids account for almost one-fifth of Honda’s sales in the US. “Hybrids are really contributing to the sales success we’re seeing—both on the Honda and Acura side of the business,” says Mamadou Diallo, Honda’s US sales chief. “The kind of volume we’re doing with hybrids really sets the tone for our future EVs.”

Honda attributes its recent hybrid success to a new dual-motor system that provides a boost to horsepower and fuel economy, unlike its previous generation of single-motor hybrids. Production of the newly fashioned CR-V hybrid started almost a year ago, and the new Accord hybrid hit the road in January. Diallo said that a hybrid version of the Civic compact is planned for next year and that gas-electric versions of other models are in the works.

The hybrid surge is not limited to the US. Globally, sales of hybrids are expected to be up 20% this year and grow by 71% over the next five years, GlobalData forecasts. Asia and North America will lead the charge, but Europe, where regulations favor all-electric vehicles, is still expected to see an 11% jump in hybrid sales this year, GlobalData says.

Environmental groups have assailed Toyota for sticking with hybrid technology that still relies on pollution-emitting fossil fuel, but former Chairman Akio Toyoda insists many buyers aren’t ready to fully embrace EVs. So Toyota is doubling down on its hybrid offerings, even as it boosts spending on EVs to $50 billion and plans to roll out 10 fully electric models by 2026. “Toyota is a department store of all sorts of powertrains,” Toyoda told reporters at a dealer meeting in Las Vegas last year. “It’s not right for the department store to say, ‘This is the product you should buy.’”

Hybrids continue to outsell EVs in the US, with sales approaching 1.4 million vehicles this year, versus nearly 1.2 million full electrics, according to GlobalData, which sees hybrids controlling 9% of the American car market in 2023, while full-electrics command 8%. Americans have been slower to adopt EVs than European and Chinese consumers because of the lack of charging infrastructure as well as the higher price of EVs, even after Tesla Inc. repeatedly cut prices this year. The average price of an EV in the US in August was $59,752, compared with $45,567 for models that run on gasoline, according to researcher Edmunds.com.

And with car loans currently averaging 7.4%, financing adds about $9,000 in interest over the 68-month life of a $40,000 loan, according to Edmunds. “There’s an element of pragmatism right now, where people aren’t opting for all the bells and whistles,” says Jessica Caldwell, executive director of insights at Edmunds, which adds up to slowing sales for vehicles over $50,000. That helps explain why more consumers are turning to hybrids, which are typically priced below a model’s comparable all-electric version.

Ford has struggled to keep up with demand for the hybrid version of its small Maverick pickup, which starts at $23,400. The Maverick hybrid accounts for nearly 60% of the model’s sales; CEO Farley said that “was far beyond our expectations.”

That’s why Ford sought to erase the price premium on the 2024 F-150 hybrid, which it unveiled at the Detroit Auto Show on Sept. 12 with new styling and features. Ford now expects the hybrid F-150 to account for one-fifth of the sales of the truck, the bestselling vehicle on the US market for the past four decades. That’s double the current hybrid take rate, and as production picks up, the company will offer the hybrid F-150 with a starting price of $55,000—the same as an equivalent gas-fueled model.

— With assistance by Chester Dawson

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