Automotive Analysis: While The World Pays Attention To EVs, Automakers Wage War With Hybrids

There is a battle currently being waged across America. It’s not based on horsepower, towing capacity, or payload rating. And the victor might not reap any sort of substantial reward. But that outcome hasn’t stopped several automakers from jumping head first into hybrid vehicle development. Honda is one such company, and they’re betting hybrids will be more appealing than EVs for the foreseeable future. But they’re not alone.

Hybrid vehicles have been available for about twenty years, but for much of that time they’ve been niche products. And for most of the 2010s it seemed like they would remain that way. The Volkswagen Jetta, Nissan Rogue, and Chevy Malibu hybrids were unceremoniously axed by their respective manufacturers. Poor sales are the likely culprit, but obviously the companies initially thought they could carve out their own hybrid customer base, otherwise they wouldn’t have introduced them in the first place. Now they’re pivoting to fully electric vehicles.

To be fair, even automakers more closely associated with hybrid vehicles stumbled a bit. Honda introduced the lukewarm second generation Insight in 2010, and it sort of staggered along until it got cancelled in 2013. Ford cancelled the Escape Hybrid, introduced the bulbous C-Max, cancelled the C-Max, then reintroduced a modern Escape Hybrid in less than ten years. Even Toyota mucked things up a bit with the Prius C and V.

But the key difference with Honda, Ford, and Toyota, at least when compared to GM and Volkswagen, is their refusal to give up on hybrids. Honda CEO Takahiro Hachigo recently reaffirmed his company’s commitment to hybrid vehicles. It seems Honda is taking a vastly more conservative approach to electrification by focusing on substantial efficiency improvements rather than battery electric vehicles. His strategy is already apparent in vehicles like the third generation Insight. The recently reintroduced hybrid boasts EPA mileage ratings within spitting distance of the Prius. It also ditched its awkward looks for something arguably more attractive than the current generation Civic. The company also continues to sell an Accord hybrid and will introduce a CR-V hybrid later this year.

Toyota also introduced a new hybrid sedan. The first-ever Corolla hybrid rivals the Prius in fuel efficiency. Additionally, the Rav4 and Highlander continue to offer hybrid powertrains as options. The Rav4 hybrid also became more popular than the Prius within the last several years. And they’re in high demand too.

The Koreans have also launched a hybrid assault of their own. The Hyundai Ionic and Kia Niro are in their first generations and sell in decent numbers. And that’s to say nothing of the Sonata and Optima hybrids. The next generation mid-size sedans will receive hybrid variants at some point in the near future. Even the Sorento is getting a hybrid powertrain.

Each of these companies even engineer their hybrids a bit differently from one another. Hyundai uses two different six speed automatic transmissions for its hybrid vehicles, a stark contrast to other automakers that employ something more akin to a CVT in their lineups. Automakers are also adding all-wheel drive to their hybrid vehicles, but taking separate paths as to how power is delivered to the rear wheels. Toyota’s system involves a small electric motor to power the rear wheels on demand. Ford decided to stick with mechanical all-wheel drive for the Escape and the Explorer. Even with the additional weight and parasitic losses of a mechanical all-wheel drive system, the Escape still managed to effectively compete with the Rav4 hybrid. Whether or not that matters with customers is something that remains to be seen.

As for the Explorer, Ford’s “no compromise” approach to the hybrid variant resulted in mileage figures that are decent but not earth-shattering. It’s more than likely that Ford developed the system for the Interceptor Utility, the police variant of the Explorer. The decision to use a 3.3 liter V6 and the same 10 speed automatic transmission from the gasoline models meant the hybrid was never going to match the 2020 Highlander hybrid’s claimed 34mpg combined figure. But it does raise an interesting question. For larger vehicles, what hybrid system will appeal to customers? According to Alex Dykes of Alex on Autos, Ford built the Explorer hybrid with towing capability in mind, which they claimed is what their customers want. By contrast, the 2020 Highlander hybrid prioritized fuel economy based on customer feedback that Toyota received.

These may seem like low stakes decisions for a comparatively small segment of market. However, the hybrid war could end up determining which companies prevail in the upcoming EV war. Ford, which is mainly known for its trucks and utility vehicles, needs to develop and sell the hybrids that will appeal to loyalists and newcomers alike. That’s even more important now that they’ve exited the sedan market. Do they stress capability or fuel economy of their electrified vehicles? Can they successfully blend both those things into the promised F-150 hybrid? And will their current and upcoming hybrid buyers convert to EVs once those proliferate?

These are questions relevant to every automaker currently betting on hybrids. For now, it seems like the winning formula is to simply build attractive hybrids that get good fuel economy. That applies to hybrid cars and crossovers alike. Automakers used to think that funky designs would sell hybrids, but after a brief teething period, it seems like they finally understand the most appealing aspects of these vehicles are completely negated if the vehicles in question are ugly or weird looking.

It’s entirely possible the companies that ditched hybrids made the smarter play. But it really seems like hybrids have turned a corner in terms of mainstream appeal. These newer hybrids boast significantly better fuel economy than their gasoline counterparts. And automakers are now installing batteries in non-obtrusive locations that don’t affect cargo capacity. All-wheel drive makes them even more desirable.

EVs get all the press, mainly because of Tesla. But their market dominance is far off and not at all assured. In the short term, the hybrid war might reflect how buyers end up reacting to fully electric vehicles. The Field of Dreams approach, aka the “if you build it, they will come” method of car manufacturing, has worked before. Ford introduced turbocharged engines into the F-150 lineup and it paid off handsomely for them. In the case of hybrids and other alternative energy vehicles, the stakes are much higher. The success of hybrid vehicles might ultimately reflect which automakers live, die, or merge with one another. Alternatively, Honda, Ford, Toyota, and the Koreans could have potentially wasted precious funds on vehicles buyers don’t really want. Either way, hybrids, and to a lesser extent their plug-in counterparts, are the vehicles to watch, at least for now.