By Amy Corr, Featured Writer
It’s been more than 20 years since hybrid vehicles hit the marketplace. Like anything new, education was, and remains, key. Initially seen as an eco-friendly, green option that also brought green to wallets in the form of tax incentives, hybrids were ideal to drive locally but highway driving was another story.
Advancements in hybrid technology have made highway and distance driving an everyday occurrence; at the same time, fully electric cars, like Tesla, joined the marketplace to offer consumers the same options minus traditional car maintenance.
Current Tesla models, for example, can go anywhere from 300 miles (Model Y) to 620 miles (Roadster) on a single charge.
According to InsideEVs, 2018 saw a marked rise in the sale of electric vehicles with 361,307, compared to 199,818 in 2017. InsideEVs also found the top 5 plug-in car manufacturers were Tesla, Honda, BMW Group, General Motors and Nissan.
The Hybrid Profile
The 2019 Customer Loyalty Engagement Index from brand consultancy Brand Keys found that 85% of hybrid buyers are men. One third of the buyers live in the Pacific region, and the rest of the regions come in at about 10% each.
By age, Brand Keys found that 35% of buyers are age 50 and over; 30% of buyers are 30-39; 25% are 40-49 and 10% are between the ages of 18 and 29. Seventy-five percent of hybrid owners have a college degree or more while 25% are high school graduates.
The study also found that hybrid sales were up 8% year-over-year. So electric cars might be the talk du jour, but they have not affected the sales of hybrid cars… for now.
The Gap Between Hype and Now
Stephen Courtney, Dealer Principal, Honda of Milford in Milford, CT, said that it’s hard to measure something that’s new to market.
“We can’t gauge the demand for electric because it isn’t yet mainstream,” he said. “Over the next 4-5 years Honda plans on introducing electric cars to consumers via hybrid cars. Honda is hedging its bets that by 2030 believe 2/3 of vehicles will be fully electric.”
There are so many unanswered questions regarding climate, temperature changes, and how a fully electric car can handle them. In addition, it’s unknown how the state and federal governments will handle the abundance of electric cars to market.
Since the demand isn’t here yet, Honda plans to ease consumers into embracing electric via the March 2020 launch of the CRV hybrid.
Most of the hybrid buyers at Honda of Milford are retired and semi-retired. Currently, Courtney noted that it doesn’t make sense to buy purchase a hybrid car due to the lower price in gas and the increase in price of a hybrid vs. traditional model.
“An electric car requires little maintenance and far fewer mechanics,” continued Courtney. “It’s a scary prospect from a dealership’s point of view.”
How Dealers Tackle the Present
Gary Seidner, Marketing Manager of Dan Perkins Subaru in Milford, CT, said that his dealership has a designated mechanic to work on hybrid models.
“Our mechanics are trained by Subaru before a hybrid model is even released,” Seidner said.
Since all mechanics can’t leave for off-site training at the same time, the dealership sends the dedicated go-to hybrid/electric mechanic for training and he or she, in turn, trains the remaining mechanics upon their return.
Subaru’s Crosstrek is available as both a hybrid and traditional vehicle; a second generation hybrid, a plug-in, came out within the last month. Seidner notes that the Crosstrek hybrid’s biggest selling factor is it’s all-wheel drive, which is a “big deal” for hybrids.
With advancements in technology and the addition of charging stations throughout the country minds should be set at ease for potential buyers to seriously consider buying a hybrid car.
In the latest generation Crosstrek model, for instance, it contains a built-in system that will tell the driver where the closest plug-in can be found.
Despite these improvements Seidner sees a country of solely electric cars as “way, way off.”
Fear The Future
Nick Stergiou, Business Development Manager of Honda of Westport in Westport, CT noted that due to the limited audience in general that’s interested in hybrid cars, the launch of electric cars has not affected the sales of its current hybrid models, the Honda Accord hybrid and Honda Insight hybrid.
“Electric is a new technology people are wary on,” he said.
Honda’s hybrid plug-in, Clarity, has a 70 mile battery range. Honda’s fully electric Clarity and hydrogen fuel cell Clarity are only available in California.
These California-exclusive cars are only available to lease. It’s safe to surmise that these cars need to be turned in after a certain amount of time to see how things wear and tear over the years.
Electric cars may be advanced technology but the future is uncharted territory. Who really knows how these vehicles will break down and how fast and what parts? “Hybrids have never been high volume selling vehicles for us,” said Stergiou. “But a year-and-a-half ago, Clarity saw a huge spike in sales thanks to state and federal incentives. We sold the most hybrids in CT last year because of the Clarity. That being said, Clarity sales have dropped in this past year.” Stergiou attributes this to a lack of marketing and education about the available incentives.
Honda of Westport recently completed a promotional program to slowly introduce consumers to its hybrid options.
The dealership approached consumers who were two years into a traditional Honda Accord lease and offered them a chance to upgrade their lease to a Clarity Plug-in. Many customers did and have been happy moving to a hybrid.
Think Green With Glee
Porsche markets all vehicles together, whether it’s a conventional, hybrid or electric car. The manufacturer treats every car like a high performance car, striving to make a connection between the driver and car and the car and the road. Recent Porsche hybrid creative has placed the focus on the fun.
Porsche has ten PHEVs (plug-in hybrid electric vehicles) currently on the market – four Cayenne and six Panamera models – and two BEVs (battery electric vehicles) that were announced in September and coming soon: Taycan Turbo S and Taycan Turbo.
When promoting its Panamera Turbo S E-Hybrid, the brand surprised unsuspecting consumers at a California coffee shop with a strong, new coffee called E-Jolt. The coffee was deemed so strong that those who ordered it had to sign a waiver. Folks who signed it were picked up by a Panamera Turbo S E-Hybrid that drove them to Porsche’s nearby Los Angeles Experience Center for an adrenaline-fueled ride from a professional racecar driver.
“Evolution-wise, creative and marketing has become less about greenness and transitioned into a focus on performance,” said James Kaplan, Vice President, Account Director for Cramer-Krasselt, working on the Porsche account.
“Twenty years ago it was compromising the fun of driving (from a creative standpoint). Hybrid owners get more out of the drive now. These are high-end performance vehicles,” added Kaplan.
While electric vehicles are steadily coming down the pipeline, there’s still mystery and kinks to be worked out. Nissan Leaf is offering refurbished batteries to replace original batteries that have degraded over time. Tesla undersold in the third quarter, causing its shares to drop by 7 percent.
“Electric is not underperforming,” concludes Kaplan. “The future is going electric. But there’s still an irrational fear of range anxiety. No one has cracked the nut of the educational component. It’s outside their everyday wheelhouse.”
It’s clear that dealers have and will face challenges as non-traditional vehicles continue to wedge their way into the public space. The time to prepare for these challenges is now.