A Model Year Ends, A New TV Season Begins, and Hybrid and Electric Vehicle Sales Are Up

October 17, 2012 | 9:51 am
David Friedman
Former contributor

Fall is officially here and television lovers are tuning in to the new season of their favorite shows. And, in an annual ritual dating back more than 60 years, we TV viewers are also tuning in to commercials from car companies promoting their 2013 Model Year (MY) line of cars and trucks.  Of course, for me the start of the new model year also means it is a great time to look at all the sales data that’s now out for MY 2012 to see if there are any new plot twists when it comes to hybrid and electric cars.

Here are some top line observations from digging into the sales data at Wardsauto.com. (Spoiler Alert: Hybrids are hot and electric vehicles are on the move.)

Hybrid sales are up almost 50% over last Model Year

Hybrid vehicle sales are booming, up 50% from last Model Year, led by Toyota and GM.

A lot of the car talk I’ve been following these last few months has been about plug-in electric vehicle sales, but there’s been big progress on conventional hybrids, and that deserves attention too.

Hybrid sales grew by more than 130,000 between MY11 and MY12. That’s more than 50 percent growth, which is impressive by itself. But, even more impressive: Hybrid sales grew more than four times as fast as the rest of the vehicle market in MY12. We’ll have to see how this plays out over the next few years, but it is a good sign that hybrids are taking up new market share.

GM picks up the hybrid pace

Two companies led the way in expanding the hybrid market in MY 12: GM and Toyota. GM boosted their hybrid sales by almost 30,000 vehicles, capturing about 7 percent of the hybrid market (up from 2 percent last year). This growth relied on their relatively “mild” hybrid system which was included as an option the Buick LaCrosse and Regal and the Chevy Malibu. This system, called e-Assist, delivers up to a 25 percent boost in fuel economy over a comparable 4-cylinder model. For MY13 e-Assist is now standard on the baseline Buick Regal and Lacrosse models, so we should expect further growth in the coming months.

Toyota expands leadership as hybrid king

The really impressive numbers, however, came from Toyota, which boosted their hybrid sales by more than 70 percent this Model Year, compared to only a 23 percent growth in total U.S. sales. Toyota was already king of the hybrids, but this year they actually expanded their dominance, controlling 75 percent of the hybrid market, up from 60-70 percent since 2009. The Prius led the sales growth, but it was quickly followed by expanded sales from the Camry Hybrid and sales of the new Prius c.

I’m sure some of this growth was the release of pent up demand as Toyota recovered from the tsunami that crippled major production lines last year. But, plenty of their other models were affected as well, so this seems like real growth.  Exhibit A is that hybrids now account for 15 percent of all of Toyota’s U.S. sales, that’s more than 1 out of every 7 vehicles Toyota sells here. Their hybrids had been stuck at 10 percent of Toyota’s U.S. sales since 2007 (i.e. both before and during the tsunami year).

Plug-in electric vehicle sales have tripled

I blogged on plug-in electric vehicles last month, so I also wanted to revisit those numbers with the final Model Year data. Overall, it is a picture of significant plug-in growth with some bumps in the road that might require added effort on the part of automakers and policymakers to keep the technology in gear.

MY12 sales of plug-ins are about triple those of last year. With sales of over 37,000 units in their second year on the market, plug-ins have about doubled the sales of hybrids from back in MY01, their second model year on the market. It is hard to make any exact comparison with a decade in between, but I remain very impressed at the strength of the early electric vehicle market especially considering the myriad of bigger barriers they face than did hybrids 10 years ago.

Plug-In electric vehicle sales have tripled over last Model Year, with plug-in hybrids leading the charge.

This impressive growth was driven mainly by plug-in hybrids (PHEV), whose sales more than sextupled (yes, I had to look that up to make sure it was right for 6X). Chevy Volt sales grew by a factor of nearly 5 while the plug-in Prius arrived in its first year by doubling the sales of the Volt from its first year.

Battery electric vehicle (BEV) sales are up about one-third versus last model year. That’s also good news, though several models weren’t available for the full MY11. There are also concerns about some vehicles, particularly the Nissan Leaf, which has lost market share to new BEV models.

To turn things around, it looks like Nissan will be offering a less expensive Leaf by no longer forcing consumers to purchase extra luxury features they may not want. We’ve talked a lot about automakers pushing forced features on hybrid buyers as part of our hybrid scorecard, so it is good that Nissan is getting this message on BEVs.

Closing caveat

Let me end with what I think will become my standard disclaimer.  As an engineer and numbers geek, I find all of this fascinating. But, the engineer in me also knows very well that we shouldn’t get too hung up on the horse race because it takes time for high-tech vehicles to make progress.

We can cut our projected oil use in half over the next 20 years and both conventional hybrids and electric vehicles will play a major role. The sales figures back this up: They show a steadily growing consumer acceptance of electric vehicles, just what you would expect from a developing market that is much more a marathon than a sprint.