Why So Many Plug-in Hybrid Cars And So Few Crossovers?

Sales of crossovers are strong. Sales of sedans are weak and getting weaker. In markets all around the world, customers want crossovers and SUVs. So why are so many automakers concentrating their green car efforts on the segment of the market that has the lowest sales?

Kia Niro plug-in hybrid crossover

Blame it on the Toyota Prius, says Automotive News. For the past decade, the Prius has been the poster child for green car technology. It has been so successful, it has spawned several variants — some larger and some smaller, but all more or less sedan based. The Prius in all forms has sold 5.6 million copies worldwide. Those are numbers car companies find hard to ignore. “With what Prius has been able to accomplish over several generations and what we provide with the Ioniq … we just thought that we could pull that off better in a sedan variant vs. a crossover variant,” Dave Zuchowski, Hyundai Motor America CEO, says.

There are other factors at work. Crossovers and SUVs tend to heavier than sedans. They also are less aerodynamic, which means it takes more power to push them through the air. Many people thought the Tesla Model 3 would be crossover type vehicle, but it is not. It will be a sedan — at least initially.

Elon Musk pushed his designers to make the car as aerodynamic as possible and they succeeded. The Model 3 is said to have a Cd of 0.20, which is one of the lowest ever for a production automobile. But that long, sloping roofline — which limits the size of the trunk opening and prevents the car from being a hatchback — is responsible for such aerodynamic efficiency. Sedans are simply the most fuel efficient, so if you want to build a a car that gets great gas mileage, you make it a sedan.

But don’t car companies have to give customers what they want? Hyundai has a Plan B. Its corporate cousin Kia will soon launch the Niro, a crossover hybrid based on the same platform as the Ioniq. If consumers prefer the Kia crossover, the Ioniq could become a crossover. “As a company, we hedged our bets and were evaluating the acceptance of both models,” Zuchowski said. “That’s something we could switch fairly quickly.”

The next generation Honda CR-V is due in showrooms in 2017. It is expected to offer customers the option of a plug-in hybrid powertrain. Toyota began offering a hybrid version of its new RAV4 recently and has been pleasantly surprised at how many customers have chosen that option. Having a plug-in option would give Honda an edge in the crossover market.

Many will be watching to see how the market reacts to the new Chrysler plug-in hybrid Pacifica van. I say it is going to be far more popular that Chrysler expects. My colleague Jo Borras disagrees. One of us is right.

Photo credit: Kia


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.