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Lengthy charge times and high sales prices have been a deterrent to consumers wishing to buy a ‘green’ car. (REBECCA COOK/Reuters)
Lengthy charge times and high sales prices have been a deterrent to consumers wishing to buy a ‘green’ car. (REBECCA COOK/Reuters)

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A fork in the road to the electric future Add to ...

Furthermore, he says, gasoline-electric hybrids accounted for 2 per cent of all Canadian sales last year “and, with more hybrid models being made available across almost all manufacturers, we’d expect the overall number of hybrids on the road to rise significantly, even if the ratio of hybrid to traditional combustion engine vehicles in the marketplace does not shift as drastically.”

Auto analyst Dennis DesRosiers of DesRosiers Automotive Consultants, agrees. “One [marketplace] theme that is very evident: hybrid is becoming mainstream.”

Last year, in fact, Toyota Canada sold nearly 12,000 vehicles that are available only as hybrids – the Prius family and two Lexus models. That means Toyota’s pure hybrid sales were up year-on-year by more than 200 per cent. Overall, hybrid sales in Canada were up nearly 200 per cent based on the available data, which DesRosiers cautions is incomplete.

“No data is available for a number of other hybrid vehicles where hybrid is simply an option of an existing model,” he says. What are those vehicles? The Toyota 4Runner and Highlander, BMW 5-Series, Ford’s Fusion and others. “Including these would increase the totals. We estimate that sales numbers pick up about half of total sales of these types of vehicles,” he says.

And new dedicated hybrids appear to be finding a home in the garages of Canadians.

Take Ford’s new C-Max wagon. It’s sold only as a dedicated hybrid and plug-in hybrid and, despite having just come to market late last year, Ford of Canada retailed 155 C-Max models in 2012. Meanwhile, GM of Canada managed to move 1,225 Volts, which most agree is more a plug-in hybrid than a purely dedicated EV. Pure EVs such as the Mitsubishi iMiEV (196 sold) and Nissan Leaf (240 sold) are finding it harder to find buyers willing to pay a premium to go green, what with range and recharging issues.

The popularity of hybrids – what could fairly be called “partial EVs” – is not surprising. Hybrid buyers get significant fuel economy gains and reduced tailpipe emissions with no deal-breaking compromises in performance and range. Their growing success makes sense from a consumer’s viewpoint.

“First of all, I should start out by highlighting that fuel economy is an extremely important purchase motivator for Canadians today,” notes Ney. “In fact, our most recent Consumer Retail Experience Study [measures sales satisfaction at the 90 days of ownership mark] found that 11.9 per cent of respondents cited fuel economy as the most important factor in their recent new-vehicle purchase decision. That puts it in second place, behind only vehicle reliability, which was cited by 12.19 per cent of respondents, and ahead of ‘The deal,’ cited by 11.46 per cent.

“So, needless to say, Canadians are looking for fuel-efficient automotive solutions in their daily lives.”

Of course, EVs and such have their detractors. Automotive News, the industry publication, catalogued a list of negatives about EVs and hybrids. Among them, Consumer Reports and others claim the Ford C-Max Hybrid and Fusion Hybrid fail to achieve window-sticker fuel economy numbers. Both the Volt and the Leaf have fallen far short of their hoped-for sales numbers, too.

Toyota, despite enjoying strong reliability findings by Consumer Reports, recalled 670,000 Prius hybrids for steering problems late last year. And the fuel-thrifty and affordable Toyota Prius C hybrid was criticized by Consumer Reports for being noisy and sluggish, thus it was not made a recommended model.

What’s clear is that while hybrids are showing promise, they do have issues. Meanwhile, pure EVs remain a tough sell. Part of that is pricing. The rest surely has to do with the “range anxiety” limitations of all EVs. On the pricing front, Nissan has already reduced the price of the 2013 Leaf by 18 per cent in the United States, and a similar price reduction will surely come to Canada.

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