EVs Get the Love, But Toyota Proves Americans Still Want Hybrids

  • Lawrence Ulrich is an award-winning car journalist and the former chief auto critic at The New York Times and Detroit Free Press. The Motor City native lives in Brooklyn with a cat and a more-finicky '93 Mazda RX-7 R1.

can be reached at lawrence.ulrich@gmail.com
  • Lawrence Ulrich is an award-winning car journalist and the former chief auto critic at The New York Times and Detroit Free Press. The Motor City native lives in Brooklyn with a cat and a more-finicky '93 Mazda RX-7 R1.

can be reached at lawrence.ulrich@gmail.com
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on pocket

Letting the perfect be the enemy of the good has become an all-too-common theme for some people who care about the environment. We see it in Germany, where an ambitious energy revolution may stall, because of a hasty decision to shutter nuclear plants before there’s enough renewable energy to take their place. And we see it in automobiles, where a relentless focus on all-electric cars has made some folks dismiss hybrids as some pointless half-measure. They’re not. And nobody knows it better than Toyota, which has sold 3.6 million hybrids in America since 2000. That’s about 2.5 times the number of battery-electric cars currently on the American road, from all companies combined. Those market-dominating hybrids are doing their part to save fuel and combat climate change, while putting money in owners’ pockets. 

Those include an impressive Toyota RAV4 Hybrid SUV that’s become America’s best-selling hybrid by far, with 92,525 sales in 2019. That’s a 92-percent sales jump over 2018, proving that Americans are keenly interested in a hybrid done right. (The stalwart Prius, if you’re wondering, has trailed off to about 70,000 sales, in this Age of the SUV). According to analysts at Motor Intelligence, more than one in four RAV4 buyers is opting for the hybrid version, and no wonder: With 219 gas-electric hp and a peppy 7.4-second dash to 60 mph, the Hybrid is the fastest and most powerful RAV4. It’s also the quietest, and its combined 40-mpg EPA rating is a healthy 10-mpg bump over the gasoline version. 

Most RAV4 Hybrids cost $2,200 more than gasoline models. But the XSE Hybrid is the value play at $35,170, only $800 more than its comparable gasoline version. The EPA figures a RAV4 Hybrid owner will save $350 a year in gasoline versus non-hybrid models. In other words, after barely two years, an XSE owner will have “paid back” the hybrid’s additional $800 technology cost. From that point on, owners will save real money, while driving the best-performing version of the RAV4. 

2020 Toyota Highlander Hybrid goes on sale in February, with room for up to eight passengers. (Photo: Toyota)

Yes, EVs tend to be even more energy efficient. But you’ll pay a price, with electric cars still costing at least $10,000 to $15,000 more than comparable gasoline models. Stiff monthly payments aside, an EV requires sacrifices in terms of limited driving range, long charging times and a shortage of places to charge away from home. EV fans consistently downplay or dismiss those challenges. But Nancy Hubbell, Toyota spokesperson, cites them as valid reasons why fewer than two in 100 Americans are choosing an electric car at shopping time. EV sales did reach a new high in 2019, with a preliminary tally of nearly 253,000 units. And those sales have nowhere to go but up. Still, not every American will want one, even 20 years from now. And that’s what makes EV-or-nothing arguments so self-defeating, especially if the ultimate goal is to convince the great mass of Americans to switch to a cleaner, energy-saving automobile. That’s where hybrids have a valuable role, as witnessed by industry sales of nearly 347,000 hybrids in 2019, according to Motor Intelligence. That’s nearly 100,000 more buyers than for EVs. 

In some ways, things are easier for Tesla: Electric cars are all they make and all they sell. Spurred in part by Tesla, global automakers, including Toyota, are wisely investing in EVs. But they also need to keep selling more-conventional cars to keep factories humming, satisfy customers and earn enough profit to stay in business. 

“We’re very bullish on hybrids,” Hubbell said. “And our commitment is that, by 2025, we’ll have an electrified version of every model in our lineup,” whether a hybrid, plug-in, EV or hydrogen fuel-cell model.

That pledge extends to the luxury Lexus lineup. Hybrids currently represent 13 percent of U.S. sales for Toyota and Lexus, and Hubbell said that number is expected to nearly double by 2025, to 25 percent. As such, Toyota is uniquely positioned to take advantage of any spike in fuel prices, or other economic woe that gets Americans looking to trim their transportation costs.

Lexus RX 450hL maintained its status as America’s best-selling luxury hybrid in 2019. (Photo: Lexus)

Speaking of Lexus, its compact, UX 250h hybrid is parked in front of my Brooklyn apartment as I write this. Last week’s test chariot was another worthy hybrid, a 2020 Ford Escape that showed me 35 mpg in the grueling conditions of New York; shy of its official 41-mpg rating, but still solid fuel economy. At the other end of the size spectrum, the all-new, 2020 Toyota Highlander Hybrid goes on sale in February. With an expected 35-36 mpg rating, versus just 23-34 mpg for gas-only versions, the Highlander Hybrid should save a typical owner about $600 a year at the pump. The SUVs and pickups that Americans prefer are ideal candidates for hybrid powertrains, because fuel savings multiply for vehicles that burn relatively large amounts of gasoline. I’d underline that the Highlander seats up to eight passengers, with AWD; it’s the kind of big family hauler that, not so long ago, would have impressed people if it could top 20 mpg

Hubbell also points to economies of scale that have allowed Toyota to shrink design and manufacturing costs and pass some savings on to customers. No matter which trim level you choose, the new Highlander Hybrid will cost just $1,400 more than a comparable gasoline-only version; on a six-year auto loan, you’d be looking at $25 a month more in payments. As with the RAV4 XSE, a buyer would earn back that technology premium after barely two years of driving, and then save $600 at the pump every year thereafter. This is green tech that pays for itself, and then some.

“For so long, it was a matter of whether people could pencil out the extra cost of a hybrid,” Hubbell says. “We’ve taken that out of the equation.” 

Now, not all hybrids are created equal. The segment is still sullied by bait-and-switch hybrids like the Ram 1500’s pickup version — a so-called “mild” hybrid — whose fuel savings are negligible. And aside from the hybrid offshoot of its hugely popular RX crossover, Lexus hybrids have largely failed to gain traction. In one glaring example, Lexus sold about 1,200 units of its lovely, creamy-driving LC coupe last year, but just 37 copies of its dispiriting hybrid version. No, that’s not a misprint. But add that drop full of LC 500h’s to Toyota’s torrent, and you’re still talking 3.6 million hybrids sold over the past 20 years. These being Toyotas, the majority of those cars are still in service. Toyota figures its frugal hybrid fleet has saved America 15.3 billion gallons of fuel, and kept 136 million tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Doing my own math, that’s the equivalent of taking 36 million polluting cars off the nation’s highways for a full year. 

So when your Tesla-driving brother-in-law starts dissing hybrids as obsolete, or environmental window dressing, feel free to dress him down. I get it: EVs are sexy. Hybrids, for the most part, are not. But while hybrids may not be the perfect green solution, they’re surely not the enemy. 


About the Author

  • Lawrence Ulrich is an award-winning car journalist and the former chief auto critic at The New York Times and Detroit Free Press. The Motor City native lives in Brooklyn with a cat and a more-finicky '93 Mazda RX-7 R1.

can be reached at lawrence.ulrich@gmail.com
Close Menu

We use cookies and browser activity to improve your experience, personalize content and ads, and analyze how our sites are used. For more information on how we collect and use this information, please review our Privacy Policy. California consumers may exercise their CCPA rights here.