Hybrid vehicles do best when they rack up impressive mileage numbers and carry lower sales premiums, analysts say.
Take the Toyota Camry Hybrid. Its 10-month sales surged 47.5 percent to 35,756. It gets 12 more miles to the gallon in city driving than the high-end four-cylinder Camry XLE, and the 2008 model costs just $200 more than the gasoline version.
The Ford Escape Hybrid and Mercury Mariner Hybrid also saw sales jump — though by single digits — in the first 10 months of the year.
Other hybrids didn't fare as well. For example, sales of the luxury Lexus RX 400h crossover fell 28.7 percent in the first 10 months to 12,023. The hybrid gets 10 more miles to the gallon in city driving than a comparable front-wheel-drive gasoline RX 350, but the hybrid's sticker price is $3,780 higher than the gasoline version.
The better-selling vehicles represent good economic choices by consumers. According to a recent study by Edmunds.com, a buyer of the Camry Hybrid will recoup the extra cost in 4.8 years. But a buyer of the Toyota Highlander will need 22.8 years to recoup the nearly $6,000 paid for the hybrid version instead of the gasoline version.
Honda Motor Co.'s decision last year to stop making the Accord Hybrid indicates that putting a hybrid badge on even a well-reputed vehicle isn't enough in a cost-conscious age.
The 2007 Accord Hybrid carried a sticker price of $31,090, $5,890 more than a V-6 Accord LX sedan and $3,690 more than an EX sedan. For that price, buyers got a vehicle with a V-6 engine and impressive horsepower — but city fuel economy that was just 8 mpg above a comparable gasoline-powered Accord.
"That's a huge premium for a small increase in fuel economy, so it wasn't a good value proposition, says Mike Omotoso, senior manager of global powertrain forecasting at J.D. Power and Associates.
Observers say the vehicle with the best potential to compete with the Prius in the hybrid market isn't on the market. They predict it will be Honda's small global hybrid, expected to debut in 2009. Honda plans to produce 200,000 units a year globally, with half of the volume going to the United States and Canada.
It will be priced below the Civic, and many expect it to be about the size of a Honda Fit and to have fuel economy as good as or better than the Prius.
"It's really going to take the Prius head-on" Omotoso says.