CARS.COM — As the 47th Earth Day, the annual worldwide day to promote environmental themes, arrives April 22, eco-friendly vehicles are struggling in the U.S., according to analysis of shopping trends data by Cars.com.
While automakers continue to pump out new hybrid and electric vehicles, overall sales of the segment have tumbled over the past five years, from 3.4 percent of industry retail sales in 2012 to 2.6 percent this year. A healthier economy and lower gasoline prices, which fell from an average $3.68 to $2.44 per gallon from 2012 to 2017, have played a part. Another factor, however, is a seismic shift in buyer preferences toward SUVs and trucks and away from cars, which still dominate the hybrid and EV offerings.
An increase in hybrid and EV choices, from 36 to 59 in the same period, has further splintered the market for new electrified vehicles — which, in turn, makes it harder for automakers to achieve economies of scale that could lower prices.
Hybrids still dominate in shopper searches over full electric vehicles on Cars.com. Toyota leads all makers by far in searches for electrified vehicles. And while Toyota is reported to be moving toward offering an electric car, it so far offers just one plug-in, the Prius Prime plug-in hybrid hatchback.
New-vehicle searches on Cars.com for electrified Toyota and Lexus cars and SUVs for the full year 2016 totaled more than the next five manufacturers combined. Lexus led luxury brands, beating BMW 478,966 to 419,722, while Toyota dominated mainstream badges with 677,159 Cars.com searches, 3.6 times Chevrolet in second place. Toyota's Prius hybrid sub-brand is the big foot in those its searches: The Prius family of vehicles had 24.4 percent of all the non-luxury hybrid and EV searches on Cars.com and 12.4 percent of all hybrid and EV searches regardless of price class.
Thanks to the strength of the Prius' eco-friendly brand image, that's true even though overall interest on Cars.com in hybrids and EVs is stronger among luxury-brand shoppers: 5.3 percent of luxury brand new-vehicle searches were for hybrid or EV models; for mainstream brands, it was 2.9 percent. Overall, 3.7 percent of new-car searches on Cars.com were for hybrids and EVs.
Also showing its eco-brand power is Tesla. Cars.com tallied nearly as many new-car searches for Tesla EVs last year as for Chevrolet hybrid and electric vehicles even though Tesla uses a direct sales model and has no dealer listings on Cars.com.
By location, shoppers in California were most interested in looking for hybrids and EVs, accounting for seven of the top 10 markets for such new-car searches on Cars.com. Seattle, Portland, Ore., and Wilmington, N.C., rounded out the top 10.
The good news for thrifty Earth Day car shoppers is that if you are interested in a used hybrid or electric car, you could get a bargain. We looked at the dealer-advertised prices for 2014 vehicles when they were new and at the dealer-advertised price tags for the same vehicles as used cars in 2017. Of the 20 vehicles with the lowest used price in relation to the new price, all are cars (mostly luxury) and nine are EVs or hybrids. Keep in mind when shopping that most of the highly publicized subsidies for buying an EV apply only to new-vehicles purchases.
There is no reason, however, to wring your hands on Earth Day over this Cars.com data. For starters, most of the conventional vehicles people are buying — even the SUVs — are a lot more efficient with lower emissions than even a few years ago. And makers are moving to offer more hybrids with mainstream appeal, including SUVs. An example is Kia's new Niro, a dedicated small SUV hybrid with space, conventional-car driving manners, a price in line with average new-car transaction prices, and an ability to register 46.7 mpg on a recent drive from Washington, D.C., to New York City and about 40 mpg around town. And Kia will have a plug-in version for 2018.
Also, the recently announced review of strict federal mileage standards through 2025 may slow the pace a bit, but it won't alter the direction. Drivers like higher mileage, regardless of gas prices, and tightening clean-air rules in Europe and, particularly, China mean global automakers still must concentrate on lower or zero-emission vehicles to achieve worldwide sales volume.
Editor's note: This story was updated on April 20, 2017, to clarify that hybrid/EV share is the percentage of industry retail sales.