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The Hybrid Wars: Toyota vs. Ford

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For the first six months of 2013, Americans bought 57,614 green vehicles—battery electrics, hybrids of all types, and diesels—an impressive number that is 19 percent ahead of the same period in 2012. But it’s not just the numbers that are interesting, it’s who bought what.

The Ford C-MAX Hybrid is on the prowl to take out Toyota sales. (Ford Motor Company photo)Hybrids are huge, everybody loves ‘em. I was talking to a well-known executive coach the other day, and for his next car, he’s going for the Lexus RX 450h, which will let him stay in a luxury SUV but also give him hybrid bragging rights. I thought he’d do just as well with a Prius V or a Ford C-MAX, but he’s still in the SUV death grip.

The fact is, consumers have a lot of choices when it comes to hybrids, and it’s reflected in the sales. Click here to see hybrid and electric results for June. Everything has to be weighed against the elephant in the room—Toyota, whose hybrid market share has been declining. Toyota had 71 percent of U.S. hybrid sales in 2012, but only about 58 percent now.

What happened? Ford happened. I think a lot of Americans like their roomy hybrid offerings, although the plug-in hybrid Energi version of the C-MAX sacrifices some trunk space. The Ford Fusion hybrid is running neck-and-neck with the Camry hybrid. Ford’s two plug-in hybrids, taken together, are handily outpacing the Prius version. In April, Prius sales fell 21 percent. Ford is boasting that its share of the electrified market grew to nearly 16 percent during the first six months of 2013. Toyota may have to scale back on its forecast of 250,000 U.S. hybrid sales in 2013.

It’s fair to say that Ford is gunning for Toyota in the hybrid space. Erich Merkle, a Ford sales analyst: “We’re turning, conquesting and growing our sales the fastest in the largest hybrid markets in the country.” Any Toyota caught out on the streets after dark will be shot on sight!

According to Todd Nissen, a spokesman for Ford’s sustainability work (I know, it would be cool if he worked at Nissan), “Sixty percent of our hybrid sales are coming from non-Ford brands,” he said. “We’re extremely bullish on the future of our hybrid and electrified portfolio.”

The Toyota Prius C is a member of the growing hybrid family. (Jim Motavalli photo)Ford has had to contend with reports that its cars don’t achieve their window sticker fuel economy. The C-MAX and Fusion Hybrids both were awarded 47 mpg across the board from the EPA, but Consumer Reports actually saw between 33 and 39 on the C-MAX and 40 mpg on the Fusion.  

Ford has a novel response, too: a set of calibration and software updates designed to improve the cars’ performance in the real world. The cars can now reach 85 mph (instead of 62) in electric mode, and new settings will wring more performance from the active grille shutters, electric fan and climate control systems. Engine warm-up times will be cut by 50 percent to enable more electric-only driving.

If you have one of these Ford hybrids, a dealer visit is necessary—Nissen says the upgrades are complex. The changes won’t affect the 2013 fuel economy labels, but possibly the 2014 will see a bump. Most likely, the cars will just come closer to making the stickers honest. If customers get 47 mpg, they'll be ecstatic.

Don’t expect Toyota to sit on its hands. It’s going to enhance its hybrid offerings, drop the price, shoehorn in new models (a hybrid minivan, perhaps?) and generally do whatever it takes to get back on top. It’s a many-front war: Honda’s hybrid sales are up, too, and now Volkswagen is on the hunt with its Jetta Hybrid (just 438 sold in June, but it’s a start). Chevrolet Volt sales are up, too, with 2,831 in June, almost 1,000 more than the same month in 2012.

The Hybrid Wars are sure fun to watch.
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