Shocking? Many Buyers Aren't Quite Sure What a Hybrid Car Is

Steph Willems
by Steph Willems

The first mass-market hybrid in the Western World, the Honda Insight, debuted while we were still worrying whether Y2K would lead us back into the Stone Age. Some days, I wonder whether we’d be better off if it had.

Regardless of my personal feelings about humanity and societal progression, we’ve had nearly two decades to familiarize ourselves with the gas-electric powertrain, but apparently not everyone got the message. A recent survey of 1,000 drivers shows there’s still plenty of confusion over what a hybrid car is actually capable of.

While the survey, conducted by UK publication Autocar and market research firm Simpson Carpenter LTD., centered around fuel types and driver preferences, it’s the hybrid question that interest this writer.

Let’s go out on a fairly sturdy limb and assume that British drivers have a similar level of access to product information as their North American counterparts. The UK is a wealthy, worldly, connected, technologically advanced nation with a sizeable motoring press and no shortage of cutting edge European car offerings. Frankly, they should know what’s up.

Instead, the survey found that “a third of respondents cited concern over driving range as a reason not to consider buying a hybrid model, despite this only being an issue that affects pure electric vehicles,” Autocar writes.

It’s easy to forget that most drivers do not spend their free time reading about the latest new vehicle in the online pages of whatever. For over a century, gasoline and diesel ruled the roost, and shoehorning a new propulsion type into the conversation means it’s going to take some time before the information sinks in. The thing is, though, everyone knows what an electric car is. These existed over a century ago, only to reappear roughly a decade after the first hybrids hit the market.

Autocar notes that while nearly a quarter of Brits claim they plan to purchase a hybrid or electric vehicle as their next car, only 5.1 percent vehicles sold in the first quarter of 2018 fell under the label of “alternatively fueled vehicles.” That’s a little more than double the take rate in the United States.

“Potential hybrid buyers are confused by the technology and are being deterred by [perceived] barriers,” said Tom Simpson, managing director of Simpson Carpenter.

The technology, at least for a consumer, is not difficult to understand. A hybrid vehicle — depending on type — operates on electric power in some situations, but always has a gas tank and internal combustion engine on board. Maybe it’s the latter part of the description that’s not getting across. And who’s to blame for that? Automakers, their marketing agencies, and the media, mainly, as these are the entities that furnish the public with information.

Calling a hybrid, plug-in or otherwise, an electrified car doesn’t help this confusion, but it does help automakers burnish their green cred. While technically accurate, to the uneducated driver’s ear it sounds too much like electric. So much time and effort goes into touting a hybrid’s (limited) gas-free driving abilities — and avoiding any mention of gasoline or emissions or any of that nasty stuff — that a barely-listening buyer can easily become confused. It’s a communications problem that’s not getting better, either, even as sales of electrified vehicles rise (ever so slowly).

Sure, this is just one survey, but it’s revealing nonetheless. I’d be very interested in seeing an identical one conducted on this side of the pond.

[Images: Honda, Kia Motors]

Steph Willems
Steph Willems

More by Steph Willems

Join the conversation
8 of 50 comments
  • Brandloyalty Brandloyalty on May 09, 2018

    The only explanation I can think of for hybrids not being on car buyers' minds is inertia or habit. Despite being aware of how suitable my hybrid is, not one of the people I know who has bought a car in the meantime has bought a hybrid. There is no shortage of choice in hybrids. Price differentials on new hybrids have come down to minor or zero compared to equivalent non-hybrids. Used or new. They do indeed get considerably better mileage. The reliability records are excellent. The batteries do not need replacing. I met a couple with a hybrid like mine. I asked them why they opted for a used hybrid. They said they were looking at several used Ford Escapes, and the one they chose because they liked the color and condition, happened to be the only hybrid. They said they didn't care then, but would never again buy a regular gas car. Maybe the key is to just get people to test drive them. A test drive in a Prius is how I "got" that hybrids work and make sense. But pushing test drives of hybrids would require enthusiasm from dealerships and sales staff, and I think that enthusiasm is lacking.

    • See 4 previous
    • Scoutdude Scoutdude on May 10, 2018

      @brandloyalty Yes there were tax credits for Hybrid vehicles between 2005 and 2010. Here is the archived page of what they were for the different qualified vehicles. Some states also had some sort of subsidy, my state, which doesn't have an income tax, exempted Hybrid vehicles from sales tax, which with it bumping up against 10% was not insignificant. Of course for the income tax credit you do have to have some tax liability and I believe that there is a limit as to how many years you can carry that credit. However I will go out on a limb and say that the vast majority of people purchasing a new car have some tax liability.

  • Brentrn Brentrn on May 09, 2018

    I bought my 25 yo daughter a 2012 Prius as a graduation present last year. She knows little about cars and does not care about driving. She does care about MPG. She has been very happy getting around 50mpg and trouble free this past year. I can't stand driving it myself but she is happy.

    • Ktm Ktm on May 09, 2018

      Show me ANY other car as reliable as a Prius. My wife had a 2008 that she drove for 8 years before giving it to her father (who, along with his wife, lives with us) 4 years ago. Not one issue in 10 years and 150k miles. She now drives a 2014 plug-in Prius that she loves. The Prius packaging is genius. It is like the Tardis, more room on the inside than the outside projects. The rear hatch area is voluminous, even more so when the rear seats are laid flat. She is also averaging around 65 mpg to date. People also tend to forget that the hybrid is primarily for emissions benefits; the fuel economy is the means by which they are achieving said emissions. I am a fan of hybrid's and EV's. I am very open-minded about all vehicles unlike a few posters in this thread. I own (and have owned) a number of sports and performance cars (350z, S4, WRX, M3, Mustang GT, LS1 powered 240z) and appreciate hybrid's and EV's all the more for what they offer.

  • The Oracle This thing got porky quick.
  • Kwi65728132 I'll grant that it's nicely kept but I'm not a fan of the bangle butt designs, and I know better than to buy a used BMW while living anywhere in the world other than in the fatherland where these are as common as any Honda or Toyota is anywhere else.
  • ChristianWimmer When these came out I thought they were hideous: now they’ve grown on me. This one looks pretty nice. Well-maintained, low mileage and some good-looking wheels that aren’t super fancy but not cheap-looking or boring either, they are just right.
  • Aja8888 Someday in the far away future, all cars will look the same, people will be the same color, dogs will be all mixed beyond recognition, and governments will own everything. That car looks like my son's Hyundai Tucson without badges.
  • Tassos Of course, what the hell did you expect? A SERIOUS, BEAUTIFUL car you can ACTUALLY USE AS YOUR DAILY DRIVER???............. NOOOOO, THIS IS TIM WE ARE TALKING ABOUT. SO HE FINDS SOME OBSOLETE POS WHICH IS 22 years old, .............AND HE PURPOSELY MISSES THE BEAUTIFUL MODEL, THE Classical Beauty E39 that ended in 2003. ...........So he uses his column as a WASTEBASKET once again, to throw the first year of BMWs BANGLED 5 series (as in the INFAMOUS CHRIS BANGLE WHO SCREWED UP THE DESIGN ROYALLY). ................................................ As Dr. Evil, Fake Doctor Jill Biden would scream at the top of her voice, so her senile idiot husband could hear her, "Good Job, (Tim)! You answered all the questions and ticked all the boxes!" ..... KEEP UP THE S---Y work, Tim!