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Battery shortage hurts hybrid sales

Ford can get about 25,000 battery packs a year for the Ford Escape Hybrid, shown, and its stablemate, the Mercury Mariner Hybrid.
With gasoline at $4 a gallon, the market is screaming for more hybrids. But sales of hybrids dropped significantly in May.

Battery shortages are crimping supplies of the Ford Escape Hybrid and Toyota Prius, two of the top-selling hybrids.

Prius sales dropped 37.5 percent in May to 15,011 compared with May 2007. Combined sales of the Escape Hybrid and its stablemate, the Mercury Mariner Hybrid, dropped 26.0 percent to 2,378 last month.

General Motors' big SUV hybrids are not selling well because of their high prices and limited fuel savings.

For the Escape and Mariner hybrids, Ford Motor Co. can get about 25,000 battery packs a year from Sanyo Electric Co., its Japanese supplier. Ford is on track to produce about that many Escape and Mariner hybrids in 2008.

"I think we have something like 700 of them in stock, and something like 400 of them are in California. Try to find one in Florida. I think there were nine in the whole state," George Pipas, Ford's sales analyst, told Automotive News.

Needed: Hybrid batteries
A battery shortage is crimping hybrid sales.
 May Sales% change From May 2007
Toyota Prius15,01137.5
Toyota Camry Hybrid5,99912.5
Ford Escape Hybrid2,13920.2
Mercury Mariner Hybrid23955.2

Prius shortage

Bob Carter, the head of Toyota's U.S. operations, said limited supplies hobbled Prius sales.

"A year ago, our supplies were at record level in Prius," he said. "Now we're in that catch-up mode."

Toyota couldn't ramp up battery production fast enough to build enough Priuses to meet demand, Carter said. Hybrids use an internal combustion engine and one or more electric motors to power the wheels.

GM has had trouble launching hybrid versions of the Saturn Vue and Aura and Chevrolet Malibu this year because of problems at its battery supplier, Cobasys.

A battery recall in December forced GM to replace about 9,000 faulty battery packs from Cobasys in 2007 model vehicles. GM used batteries destined for 2008 vehicles to repair the recalled models, causing a battery shortage this year.

GM likely will be short of the Malibu and Saturn hybrids for the rest of the summer, according to a source familiar with GM's hybrid production plans. But GM expects to crank up hybrid production in the fall.

GM's hybrid cars have been in high demand in part because the option costs less than $2,000. They are mild hybrids; that means the electric motor assists propulsion, but the cars can't run on battery power alone.

The Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrid and GMC Yukon Hybrid are more efficient full hybrids; that means they can run on batteries alone. They have sold slowly in part because their stickers are high. The Tahoe Hybrid starts at $50,490, including shipping.

Its fuel economy is 50 percent better than that of the standard Tahoe but still modest at 21 mpg city and 22 mpg highway. Only about 1,000 Tahoe Hybrids and Yukon Hybrids have been sold this year.

Needed: More batteries

Toyota's Carter denied a suggestion from a reporter that his company was deliberately holding down its Prius supply to encourage customers to buy other models with higher profit margins.

The 15,011 Priuses sold in May compare with 24,009 in May 2007. The Camry Hybrid also was down in May with sales of 5,999, down 12.5 percent from a year ago.

"We're pushing for every bit of production we can get," Carter said. "We're working very closely with our suppliers to increase that capacity." 

You can reach Richard Truett at rtruett@crain.com

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