Hybrid sales are down, but Ford is bucking the trend

The big news of 2008 was that, after a strong start on the U.S. market, hybrid sales fell into the toilet. This year is another loser: overall industry sales of hybrids are still down 11 percent.

A prime reason for the sales slump is probably the price premium on hybrids—people just don’t have the money for technology that won’t pay back the investment in the short term (though people continue to assert their green beliefs). But Ford seems to be bucking the trend.

At this time last year, we were looking at a 10.3 percent drop of hybrid sales for all of 2008 (on sales of 310,724). Ford’s hybrids were down 22.2 percent, and also down were Honda (12.5 percent) and Toyota (12.8 percent). Only Nissan, which had recently introduced the Altima Hybrid, showed a gain (5.2 percent).

There are signs that the sales resistance is crumbling. In November of this year, overall hybrid sales were up 21 percent, and most manufacturers did better with hybrids than they did in the same month of 2008. Toyota moved 14,473 hybrids, up 16.3 percent from the previous year. Honda sold 1,646, which was a 57.8 gain. Nissan found new homes for 503 Altimas, which was nonetheless a 42.5 percent increase.

Ford was behind only Toyota in hybrid sales, with 2,361 units, up 73.5 percent. Overall, Ford, Lincoln and Mercury sales were down (0.2 percent).

Despite the industry problems, Ford is crowing about its hybrid sales. It sold 31,000 of them through November, beating its previous high in 2007. For the year, Ford’s hybrid sales were up 67 percent, a development it credits to the successful launch of the midsized Fusion and Milan Hybrid twins (41 mpg city/36 highway).

Ford sales analyst George Pipas claims that it is making more “conquest” sales, luring customers from other brands (mostly Toyota and Honda). These shoppers, he said, want fuel-efficient cars and the hybrids, Pipas said, lure “a whole community of customers who might have otherwise never visited a Ford showroom.”

Green concern remains a major factor in hybrid purchase decisions. Bill Casselberry of San Angelo, Texas (who happens to be 91) says he traded in his 2006 Camry on a 2010 Fusion Hybrid because “I’m concerned about all the greenhouse gases we’re putting into the air, and I wanted to do my part to reduce the negative effect on our atmosphere. If we don’t do something now, future generations are not going to have a world to live in.”

Black & Veatch, an engineering, consulting and construction company, has 22 Escape Hybrids, and they didn’t buy them to save money on gas (though that’s a welcome benefit). “Our company is always looking at ways to reduce our carbon footprint,” said Rod Cramer, fleet manager at the company. “The Escape Hybrids also play a major role in showing our employees and clients how serious our commitment is to the environment that we all share.”

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