More partial hybrids have hit the market, but shoppers haven't embraced the price/value equation
With the premium for a full hybrid as high as $6,000, automakers are using parts of hybrid systems -- such as stop-start, regenerative braking and small electric motors -- to get fuel economy benefits at a modest price.
They hope to hit consumers' sweet spot with the resulting vehicles, called mild hybrids, which contain some elements of a hybrid but can't run on electricity alone, even for a short distance. So far, however, the technology package has yet to prove itself in the marketplace.
General Motors' eAssist mild hybrid system in the Buick LaCrosse and Regal has enjoyed success. GM said in June that eAssist accounted for about 25 percent of LaCrosse sales. Assuming that mix remained constant, that would mean GM had sold slightly more than 1,000 LaCrosse eAssist units through August. And GM will make eAssist standard on the base-model 2013 Regal. The system uses a small electric motor to assist the internal combustion engine.
On the other hand, Chevrolet rolled out its 2013 Malibu first with the Eco mild-hybrid version, a version of the eAssist technology. But customers strongly favored the less expensive 2012 closeout nonhybrid car. From the March launch through June, the last sales breakdown GM has released, GM sold only 6,953 Ecos, just 6.5 percent of Malibu sales in those months.The sales numbers pale against those of the Toyota Prius, a full hybrid: 164,408 U.S. sales through August.
More eAssist for GM
GM defends its mild hybrids. "We believe the 'light electrification' solution provided through eAssist is the best balance of fuel economy improvement and affordability," says Kevin Kelly, manager of electric vehicle and hybrid communications.
GM expects eAssist technology to "play an important role in our powertrain technology in the future," he says.
Other automakers are less enthusiastic.
Volkswagen is launching the Jetta Hybrid in the United States in the fourth quarter. It is a full hybrid and is turbocharged. VW didn't consider a mild hybrid, said Tim Mahoney, executive vice president and chief product and marketing officer at Volkswagen of America Inc. "A mild hybrid doesn't help you that much in terms of numbers," he said.
A key issue: The boost in mpg can be too small to attract buyers, one analyst says.
"When it comes to something of this nature where the benefit in miles per gallon isn't really obvious, it is not going to be nearly as valuable to consumers," says Ivan Drury, senior analyst at Edmunds.com.
More mild hybrids
Automakers are nonetheless standing by their mild hybrid plans. Nissan, for instance, uses regenerative braking on its Japanese-market Serena minivan, which it calls a hybrid. And Suzuki uses the technology on its next-generation Wagon R, also for the Japanese market.
Automakers say that such systems give consumers more choice. What's often unsaid is that automakers also need mild hybrids to meet tougher fuel economy standards.
"It's a combination of trying to please the customer and trying to please the government," says Mike Omotoso, senior manager global powertrain at LMC Automotive Inc.
Finding a customer base for mild hybrids is tough, says Dennis Bulgarelli, director, Automotive at researcher Compete Inc. in Boston. Customers tend to cross-shop them against cars of a similar size with internal combustion powertrains, rather than only against other hybrids.
Even during gasoline price spikes, when people tend to consider hybrids more, Compete found they often chose a gasoline-powered car, Bulgarelli says. Price is usually the deciding factor, he says.
"When it comes right down to it, if I can get OK fuel economy and it will cost me less, then green kind of goes out the door," Bulgarelli says.
Mild hybrids aren't even considered by most consumers looking for a full hybrid, LMC's Omotoso says.
"When people think hybrid, they immediately think full hybrid and the Toyota Prius," he says.
Ford is among automakers sticking to its plans to include mild hybrids in its mix. It offers Auto Stop/Start on the 2013 Fusion as a "very affordable" $295 option, says spokesman Wesley Sherwood. Still, Ford's main emphasis seems to be on nonhybrid technology -- specifically, the EcoBoost twin-turbo direct injection system.
Says Sherwood: "Many customers do not care about or understand specific technologies, but they are increasingly looking for more fuel economy."