Hybrid-Car Competition Heats Up: Does the Toyota Prius Finally Have a Worthy Challenger?

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Ford Motor Company

Ford C-Max

In January, Ford sold five times as many hybrid vehicles as it did the year before. New hybrids from Volkswagen, Honda and pretty much every other automaker also mean that Toyota, which has dominated the market for years with its hybrid Prius, better be ready for quite a fight.

Without a doubt, consumers are curious about plug-in vehicles like the Chevy Volt and the all-electric Nissan Leaf. But when it comes time to purchase, the consensus is that the vast majority of buyers will keep on turning to cars that are powered mainly by gasoline.

According to a J.D. Power survey published last year, the majority of consumers (71%) indicated that the next car they buy or lease would be a regular, old-fashioned gas-powered vehicle. Almost one-quarter (23%), meanwhile, said they’d be most likely to purchase a conventional hybrid such as the Toyota Prius or Ford Fusion Hybrid. Only 4% pointed to the plug-in hybrid (Chevy Volt) as the car they’d buy next, and just 2% said their next automobile would be a purely battery-powered vehicle like the Nissan Leaf.

The takeaway is that automakers expect to be selling a lot more traditional hybrids than they will plug-ins for some time to come. By far, the top dog in the hybrid category is the Toyota Prius, which has not only been on the market longer than almost any of its peers, it has managed to push beyond its original niche status and become a best seller around the globe.

(MORE: What Would Make an All-Electric Car Appeal to the Masses?)

But every year, the Prius faces more competition as other automakers roll out new and improved hybrids. Ford, for example, recently unleashed the C-Max, which has been hyped as its “Prius fighter.” Impressively, in its first full month of sales, the C-Max Hybrid outsold the Prius V, which is the larger, family-friendly version of the Prius that the C-Max competes with most directly.

Bloomberg reported that January was a record month for Ford hybrid sales, which increased by a factor of five compared with the same time a year ago. Around 6,000 Ford hybrids were sold last month, compared with about 1,200 in January 2012. With such a start, Ford executives anticipate that its 2013 hybrid sales total will blow away its current annual high of 35,496, set in 2010.

Beyond rising sales, two bits of data concerning hybrid purchases are getting Ford particularly excited: per the Detroit News, a high percentage (70%) of Fusion Hybrid purchases come from “conquest buyers” (consumers who previously drove another car brand, not a Ford); and Fusion Hybrid purchasers tend to be slightly younger than the typical hybrid owner. As one Ford executive explained:

‘We’re bringing new hybrid buyers into the market, many of whom wouldn’t be considered traditional hybrid buyers,’ said Amy Marentic, Ford’s marketing manager of global small and medium cars. ‘There’s a sense hybrid buyers represent a pragmatic or green ethic.’

(MORE: Will the EPA Change the Way It Measures MPG Ratings? Maybe Just for Hybrids?)

It’s difficult for automakers to woo drivers away from another brand, and it can be maddeningly complicated for automakers to sell cars to younger consumers, so any progress that can be made on one or both of these fronts is considered a great success for Ford.

Even so, a little perspective is needed on Ford’s hybrid-sales data. One reason sales have risen so sharply is that they were so weak in the past. The C-Max may have outsold the V version of the Prius last fall, but it sure as heck didn’t outsell all Priuses. Toyota sold around 236,000 Priuses in the U.S. last year, a 73% increase from 2011. The Prius has become the top-selling car in California (it’s the best seller period, not just for hybrids), and Toyota should expect to average more than 20,000 sales monthly in 2013 in the U.S. Ford, by contrast, is happy because it managed to sell 6,000 hybrids last month.

This doesn’t mean that Toyota can kick back and rest on its laurels with the confidence it’s got the hybrid market wrapped up. Slowly, Toyota has been losing market share of hybrids — down to 60%, after being 68% not long ago — while Ford’s share of the market has increased from 7% to 16%.

And Ford is hardly Toyota’s only competitor in the hybrid market. Every automaker seems to have a hybrid that’s new to the market or will be soon. One of the most eagerly anticipated is the 2013 Volkwagen Jetta Hybrid, which stands out because, unlike the typical hybrid that can feel like a glorified golf cart, this car is supposedly fun to drive and really moves when your foot hits the gas pedal. A WardsAuto review put it this way:

The engine makes the Jetta hybrid arguably the most compelling parallel hybrid yet because it delivers great fuel economy at a competitive price and reinforces the European joy of driving. It’s truly sporty.

(MORE: Why the New Ford Fusion Is the Most Important Car, Like, Ever)

So while the Prius is undeniably the champ among hybrids, and it is likely to hold the sales crown for a long time to come, every year it’ll face tougher contenders — and just plain more of them.