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Toyota Prius (David Dewhurst/Toyota)
Toyota Prius (David Dewhurst/Toyota)

The Green Highway

Turning the hybrid fizzle into sizzle Add to ...

Until we get to the new Golden Age of motoring, now fast approaching when your car runs on bio-fuels made from waste or seaweed or from hydrogen released from water from giant solar farms, let’s take a look at what’s actually selling in the real world.

Not hybrids. I love hybrids – as long as you’re a downtown taxi driver or stop-’n-go commuter. As you well know, when you hit the brakes little generators produce electricity, not just heat, and that juice goes into electric motors that help the gasoline engine use less gasoline. It’s a great solution for certain types of drivers.

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But if you’re a travelling salesman/woman or other long-distance travellers like weekend cottagers, then forget it. Why pay extra for electric motors and a big heavy battery that will just be along for the ride.

So it’s horses for courses and you city people should buy hybrids if you care about carbon versus the planet; however, few of you do. I'll quote some U.S. numbers, not because it’s not the largest auto market in the world (hello China), but it is still the most important, technologically speaking, and the most profitable one.

In the United States in 2011, hybrid sales were a miserable 2.2 per cent of a total 12.8 million vehicles sold, down 0.4 per cent from the year before, according to the numbers from LMC Automotive. Toyota is the world’s leading hybrid builder and, in Canada, after 11 years of trying, Toyota has sold a grand total of 23,000 Prius models, many with $2,500 discounts. So hybrids, apart from their benefit for city drivers, have failed to sweep the world.

Will anything change this pattern? After all, gasoline engine cars are becoming cleaner and smaller; V-8s and even V-6s are fast disappearing. So why spend the extra for two powertrains and a big, heavy battery? Well, there are a couple of reasons. First, more people may wish to purchase a hybrid for their clean cred and second there are about to be many more choices,

But before we get into that, I want to point out that the all-electric Nissan Leaf – there’s no gasoline burned in this one for you carbon-haters – is selling quite well. It’s a bit on the expensive side, but if you can limit your trips to inner-urban and skip the long highway hauls, this is the comfortable, silent and first-on-your-block reference piece you want to own.

Nissan has now sold more than 10,000 Leafs in the United States and another 10,000 globally. That’s by far the best-selling all-electric car and it actually outsold the hybrid Prius V and the gasoline-powered, range-extended Chevrolet Volt last year.

But don’t write the Prius off. Back in October, I wrote about the Prius V as the Prius that Toyota should have launched in the first place. It’s a roomy, new, station wagon version of the car that started the hybrid movement.

Toyota has now expanded the Prius line from one vehicle to four and other manufacturers are rolling out more hybrids each year. Hybrids today are about 1 per cent of global production and many analysts believe hybrids can max out at between 5 and 8 per cent over the next 10 years.

Why? The extra hybrid choices you’ll have in the showrooms, plus Gen Y.

Generation Y, also known as the Millennials, is that annoying slice of the population born in the 1980s and 1990s. Marketers have puzzled forever over the 80 million plus Gen Y consumers in North America to learn “what do they want?” Why can’t they be straightforward like the Boomers (the greatest generation ever) and simply go out and buy horsepower and glitz and love their cars? No, this crowd is different.

Deloitte LLP just did its annual survey of Gen Y consumers and their automotive tastes: 59 per cent of Gen Y respondents would choose an “electrified vehicle: over anything else. That’s almost two to one not wanting gasoline power only.

Gen Y is hybrid’s best hope. Nine out of 10 of them want better gas mileage than they believe they can get with conventional gasoline-only drivetrains. Gen Y is about a quarter of the market and they will be listened to. That’s why hybrids won’t go away.

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