Why People Don't Buy Hybrids Again

By Bill Moore

Posted: 10 Apr 2012

According to the Los Angeles Times, a recent survey by automotive information company R.L. Polk found that if you factor out loyal Toyota Prius buyers, only 25% of previous hybrid owners are repurchasing a hybrid car.

Now that sounds really bad for hybrids, doesn't it? I mean, three-quarters of owners are so disappointed with their hybrid car experience that they refuse to consider buying one again.

I read that and thought, that can't be right, and it's not. Talk about spinning statistics.

Let's take a look at those numbers, shall we?

"Only 35% of hybrid vehicle owners chose to purchase a hybrid again when they returned to the market in 2011," states the LA Times article, adding…

"If you factor out the super-loyal Toyota Prius buyers, the repurchase rate drops to under 25%."

So, if you take away the "super-loyal" Prius owners, the repurchase plummets to fewer than one in four customers will buy a hybrid again. What is Toyota's share of the hybrid market in the United States? Somewhere around eighty-five percent, that's what. Eighty-five percent of all hybrids sold in the USA are badged Toyota, and the vast majority (50.6%) of those are Priuses. Of the estimated 4.5 million hybrids cars on the plant, 2.5 million are Priuses. The company also sells the Camry and Highlander Hybrids, along with an expanding number of Lexus hybrids; the CT200h being the most cost-effective of the line-up according to the BCAA.

That leaves the remaining 15 percent share of the US market to be split between Honda, the second biggest seller accumulatively at 800,000 units, Hyundai, the second largest seller of hybrids in 2011, followed by Ford and GM.

In 2011, Toyota sold 136,463 Priuses. The next closest competitor was the Hyundai Sonata Hybrid at a mere 19,672 units (that is fewer than the total number of Nissan LEAF all electric cars sold that same year). Honda sold 15,549 Insights and 11,330 CR-Z hybrids., Ford sold 11,286 Fusion Hybrids, 10,089 Escape Hybrids and 5,739 Lincoln MKZ Hybrids.

If you look at the various reviews of these cars by the automotive media, you'll quickly understand why a lot of buyers of those cars aren't re-upping for another go. Reviews of the Hyundai Sonata Hybrid have been critical of their less-than-silky-smooth hybrid drive system. Honda's Insight was panned for its "cheap" interiors. The CR-Z looks sort of cool, but offers disappointing fuel economy compared to the original Honda Insight that I once owned.

Ford has stopped making the Escape Hybrid because they've come up with a way to offer comparable fuel economy without the extra cost of hybridization. In fact, this is probably one of the reasons buyers of these early hybrids aren't buying new hybrids: carmakers are now offering less expensive non-hybrids that perform just as well, for less money. The line up of 40 mpg non-hybrids is expanding, which is a good thing, in my view. Still, unless you're willing to bite the bullet and buy a LEAF, Volt, i, or Coda, your only other choice to own a car that consistently does better than 45 mpg is the venerable Prius. Frankly, no one yet has come close to matching their performance after Honda cancelled the original Insight program.

Consumers are smart enough to do the math and given the current lackluster economy, a lot of car buyers are figuring they can save money and gas by switching to Honda Fits, Chevy Cruzes and Ford Focuses. Granted, all those cars are still dependent on the supply of petroleum and even more volatile gasoline prices, but it's a gamble a lot of people are willing to take.

It's my view that the reason a lot of non-Prius hybrid car owners are not repurchasing new hybrids is a combination of family economics and improving ICE-age engine technology, as well as disappointment with hybrids offered by the "also rans." But the key message here is, that group represents a far smaller fraction of the hybrid owner market than R.L Polk's survey numbers suggest. What Polk's findings really say is the Hondas, Hyundais, Fords and GMs need to do a lot better job on improving their conventional hybrid technology; and I think, for the most part they are. Now, they just need to figure out how to keep their hybrids owners as loyal as Toyota has managed to do.

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