Hybrid Drivers Trading In For SUVs, But Why?

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Americans have loved SUVs since their inception. Those handy, do everything, go anywhere vehicles represent the hottest part of the new car market in the US. And as gas prices fall (although they are trending back up again lately), EV and hybrid owners are trading in their cars and driving home shiny new SUVs in record numbers, according to Edmunds.

So far in 2015, 22% of hybrid and EV owners are moving up to an SUV  when they buy a new car. That’s up from 19% last year and 12% just three years ago. Overall, sales of EVs and plug in hybrid cars are down from 3.3% of the market last year to 2.7% this year. Uh, oh……is America’s love affair with earth friendly vehicles over already? Wow, that was a short honeymoon.

“For better or worse, it looks like many hybrid and EV owners are driven more by financial motives rather than a responsibility to the environment,” says Edmunds Director of Industry Analysis Jessica Caldwell. “Three years ago, when gas was at near-record highs, it was a lot easier to rationalize the price premiums on alternative fuel vehicles. But with today’s gas prices as low as they are, the math just doesn’t make a very compelling case.”

Yet there’s more to it than that. As Zachary Shahan pointed out over at our sister website CleanTechnica, the buyers of hybrids should be separated from those buying plug-in hybrid or fully electric vehicles. Hybrid car sales currently dwarf those of plug-ins, skewing the statistics to make it seem like green car buyers are flocking to SUVs, and you can get a hybrid version of almost any vehicle out there today…and not all of them are really that great. Today’s conventional SUVs have become more frugal with fuel; the Ford Escape Hybrid was replaced by an EcoBoost engine that gets better gas mileage. Why not trade in a less-efficient hybrid for a more-efficient model?

Sales of the Nissan LEAF and Chevy Volt have slumped, but both are due to be replaced soon, so sales have naturally trailed off, but the Tesla Model S is coming off of one record year and has more than 20,000 pre-orders for the Tesla Model X. BMW has had to increase production of the i8 plug-in hybrid supercar, and sales of the i3 have proven particularly robust outside of major metro areas.

The real problem here is that traditional hybrid car technology no longer has the same appeal it once did. Plug-in cars are the new statement-makers, as they can do away with the petrol part of the transportation equation. Even the most efficient Toyota Prius must still rely on fossil fuels.

It also doesn’t change the fact that many Americans love the space and feel of SUVs, and lower gas prices combined with human shortsightedness may mean a temporary uptick in sales. It will only last as long as low gas prices do.

Steve Hanley

Closely following the transition from internal combustion to electricity. Whether it's cars, trucks, ships, or airplanes, sustainability is the key. Please follow me on Google + and Twitter.