Buyers understand power, but they don’t understand hybrids and electric cars. Automakers are finding a lot of confusion in the marketplace.
While all the attention these days seems to be on fully electric vehicles, hybrids are becoming the more powerful alternatives to conventional vehicles. Yet, the perception is that they are boring.
For example, the new Lincoln Aviator will be sold with both a conventional gasoline engine and a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) powertrain. The “regular” edition makes 400 horsepower and 400 lbs-ft of torque, but the PHEV version bumps that up to 450 hp and 600 lbs-ft.
Lincoln isn’t making a big deal of how this works. In fact, it’s hiding it. The PHEV version is called the Grand Touring, and you won’t see the word “hybrid” anywhere on the SUV.
“The research we saw, mostly in the United States,” says Lincoln president Joy Falotico, “is that the rejectors were saying, ‘I think I’m losing power with that, so I’m not interested.’ When you’re talking about a luxury vehicle versus a mass-market brand, there’s got to be a no-compromise solution. Consumers are very confused in the U.S. between hybrid, plug-in hybrid, and even battery-electric.”
A hybrid car uses a combination of gasoline engine and electric motor that’s charged by driving, while a PHEV uses a similar combination that’s also charged by plugging into a power socket. A battery-electric car uses only an electric motor that’s charged by plugging it in.
Chief engineer John Davis clarifies that yes, there’s a PHEV version of the Aviator, and it will be more powerful: “We’re going to reference the model as the Grand Touring,” he says, “relative to the powertrain technology that is Grand Touring Hybrid.”
But, Falotico stresses, jumping back into the explanation: “That’s not what we’re going to put on the car – just Grand Touring.”
Lincoln is trying to keep it simple for consumers, but while the PHEV Aviator has much better fuel consumption than its conventional sibling, the greater power will actually sell it. Buyers understand power, not powertrains.
Toyota is taking a similar approach with its new RAV4 compact SUV. It will be sold as both a conventionally-powered gasoline model and, in the spring, as a hybrid.
In previous editions, the gas model had a powerful engine and the hybrid had a smaller, more frugal gas engine that was supplemented by an electric motor to make up the power difference. For 2019, however, all versions will use the same 2.5-litre gas engine, and the hybrid will create extra power with its additional motor. It will be the sporty edition.
“We’re ready to change perceptions around hybrid vehicles, and significantly boost hybrid sales,” said Cyril Dimitris, vice-president of sales and marketing for Toyota Canada, at the vehicle’s recent launch.
“Toyota hybrids are best known for their fuel efficiency and … emissions performance. While we’ll continue to reinforce that message, the new RAV4 Hybrid will also demonstrate that hybrids are highly capable performance machines that are seriously fun to drive.”
It’s been done before, without much success. When the Honda Accord was first released as a hybrid model in 2005, it was billed as the faster and more powerful version of the sedan, although its performance was only slightly quicker. It appealed to very few, and was discontinued after only a couple of years. Back then, hybrids were seen only as fuel-savers.
The Accord Hybrid returned to the United States and Canada in 2014 as a more frugal version of the Accord and gained more power in 2018. It’s still not quite as quick as the conventional car, but it doesn’t lack for horsepower and torque. Even so, it accounts for only about 5 per cent of Accord sales in Canada. It costs $5,000 more to buy, and drivers don’t expect to save that much in fuel over its lifetime.
Some expensive sports cars use hybrid powertrains specifically to improve their performance. The $150,000 BMW i8 boosts its power with an electric motor, while million-dollar cars such as the McLaren P1, Porsche 918 and Ferrari LaFerrari use the motor to also keep applying power between gear changes. An electric motor always has maximum torque and doesn’t need to be revved to bump up the acceleration.
The new RAV4 hybrid will be a more affordable way to add power to the vehicle, increasing horsepower from 203 hp to 219 hp, and the difference is noticeable. However, it also saves a considerable amount of fuel – the official rating is expected to be about 6.0 litres/100 km, compared to the equivalent 8.3 L/100 km of the AWD conventional RAV4. Along the way, too, the hybrid’s tailpipe emissions will be lower and the vehicle will be generally cleaner-running.
Toyota currently sells 14 per cent of its RAV4s as hybrids in Canada. It’s clear there’s a market for the technology if the extra cost is not that great: The Camry Hybrid costs an additional $5,000 or so over the conventional sedan, such as the Accord, but it’s much more established and accounts for more than 26 per cent of the model’s sales here.
Toyota says the new RAV4 Hybrid will be “significantly” less expensive than the current generation. It expects to double its stake with the new focus, selling as many as one in every three of the compact SUVs as hybrids, appealing to buyers’ demands for both power and low fuel consumption.
“The industry introduced hybrids to Canadians by emphasizing their fuel-efficiency and their environmental benefits,” says Stephen Beatty, Toyota Canada’s corporate vice-president, “but this RAV4 Hybrid, more than any other model, is going to drive home the message that Toyota hybrids are all of that, plus more.
"You really won’t believe that you’re driving a hybrid.”
Stay on top of all our Drive stories. We have a Drive newsletter covering car reviews, innovative new cars and the ups and downs of everyday driving. Sign up for the weekly Drive newsletter, delivered to your inbox for free. Follow us on Instagram, @globedrive.