Dec 6, 2023 - Technology

Hybrid cars are having a moment amid electric car skepticism

The redesigned 2024 Toyota Prius is turning heads for its sleeker design. Photo: Courtesy of Toyota

As automakers push their flashy new electric vehicles (EVs), many consumers making the jump from gasoline cars are opting instead for hybrids as they tiptoe toward electrification.

Why it matters: Car buyers — not politicians, regulators or carmakers — will dictate the pace of the electric transition.

Driving the news: At $50,000, the average EV is still too expensive for many buyers — and new rules could make it harder to qualify for a federal tax credit. A lack of chargers remains a concern, too.

  • Hybrids — which get great gas mileage and average under $40,000 — are a happy medium for many.
  • That has some carmakers rethinking their product offerings, at least in the short term.

What's happening: Ford is among the automakers putting a bigger emphasis on hybrids and plug-in hybrids.

  • It's already among the top three bestselling hybrid brands, behind Toyota and Honda. Its hybrid sales rose 75.2% in November, led by hybrid versions of the Maverick and F-150 pickups.
  • Ford is now planning to quadruple its hybrid offerings in the next few years, saying it's clear that consumers want a broader mix of choices.

Meanwhile: General Motors, which claims to be "all in" on EVs, is weighing whether to add more hybrids to its lineup, the Detroit News reported.

  • "We need to meet the customer where they're at," CEO Mary Barra told reporters Monday — adding that GM could use existing hybrid technology to expand its offerings (though she didn't announce any plans).

And Toyota, already the hybrid leader, is doubling down on them.

  • Its redesigned Prius, available in both hybrid and plug-in hybrid versions, is turning heads for its handsome styling.
  • And its next generation Camry — the bestselling sedan in the U.S. — will be available only as a hybrid, similar to the Toyota Sienna minivan.

Toyota and its Lexus luxury brand now offer 26 "electrified" models — more than any other carmaker — including the new Toyota Grand Highlander hybrid, the Toyota Corolla Cross hybrid and the Lexus RX plug-in hybrid.

  • Toyota has long favored a mix of powertrain choices, and has stood apart from rivals for its reluctance to race too quickly into pure EVs.
Top-selling <span style="color: #260C03; background-color:#fac755; padding: 0px 4px; display: inline-block; margin: 5px 0px 0px; white-space: nowrap; font-weight: 700;">electric</span>
 and <span style="color: #260C03; background-color:#F37B53; padding: 0px 4px; display: inline-block; margin: 5px 0px 0px; white-space: nowrap; font-weight: 700;">hybrid</span>
 vehicles  in the U.S.
Data: S&P Global Mobility; Chart: Tory Lysik/Axios Visuals

By the numbers: "Electrified" vehicles — hybrids, plug-in hybrids and battery-electric vehicles — hit a record 17.7% of U.S. car sales during the third quarter of this year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, citing data from Wards Intelligence.

  • A breakout of the data shows about 10% of car sales are hybrids or plug-in hybrids, while 8% are pure EVs.
  • And while EV sales passed the 1 million mark this year (out of roughly 16 million total sales), it's worth noting that 83% of EVs sold are considered luxury models, with price tags to match.

Of note: Traditional hybrids are also more reliable than gasoline cars and plug-ins, according to Consumer Reports' annual reliability survey.

  • "This is because hybrid technology is now over 25 years old and is offered mainly from the most reliable automakers," Jake Fisher, the group's senior director of auto testing, tells Axios.

Between the lines: Carmakers are stuck in a conundrum as they try to balance regulatory demands with customers' needs.

  • To meet emissions targets — which would toughen dramatically under a Biden administration proposal — they need to sell more EVs.
  • But everyday customers are telling them they're not ready to buy battery-only vehicles.

The bottom line: Hybrids are turning out to be exactly what was expected: a bridge technology to pure EVs.

Go deeper