Hybrid, Electric Car Sales Crumble as Gasoline Prices Remain Low

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Wednesday might be the 45th anniversary of Earth Day, but the first three months of 2015 are no cause for celebration among hybrid, plug-in hybrid and all-electric carmakers. For the first quarter of 2015, sales of hybrids like the Prius from Toyota Motor Corp. (NYSE: TM) are down 15.6% compared with year-ago totals.

The various Prius models from Toyota plus the Camry and Avalon Hybrids command two-thirds of the U.S. market for hybrid cars. Only the Prius V compact wagon showed a modest sales gain (4.6%) in the first three months of the year.

What’s worse is that owners are trading in their hybrids and electrics at a higher rate than ever as gasoline prices remain low. According to Edmunds, about 22% of owners who have traded in their hybrids and all-electric (EV) cars so far this year have purchased a new sport utility vehicle (SUV). That is nearly double the rate of 11.9% just three years ago.

Only 45% of hybrid and EV trade-ins so far this year have gone toward the purchase of another alternative fuel vehicle. Edmunds noted that this is the first time ever that loyalty rates among alternative fuel vehicle owners has dropped below 50%.

The math tells the story though. When gasoline averaged $4.67 a gallon in October 2012, the price difference between a Camry hybrid and a gasoline-powered Camry could be recovered in five years. At a national average price of $2.27 per gallon, the payback period rises to 10 years.

The difference is even greater for EVs like the Nissan Leaf, the Chevy Spark from General Motors Corp. (NYSE: GM) and the Ford Focus EV from Ford Motor Co. (NYSE: F). Nissan Leaf sales are down 21.2% year-over-year for the first three months of 2015, and Focus EV sales are down nearly 9%. The Chevy Spark has posted a 31% jump in sales, but the total is just 151 units.

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Among plug-in hybrids like the Chevy Volt and the Ford C-Max Energi, first-quarter sales are down 48% and 1.5%, respectively. The best-selling car in this group is the Ford Fusion Energi, which sold just 837 units in March and has sold a total of 1,866 year to date, down 15.6% compared with the first quarter of 2014.

GM’s Cadillac ELR plug-in hybrid boasts a 73% increase in first-quarter sales to a whopping total of 311 compared with 180 a year ago. Ford’s Lincoln MKZ hybrid has posted 2015 first quarter sales of 1,665, down 45.5% compared with a year ago.