Powertrain preferences shift but internal combustion engine still dominates

29 Mar 2012 Tom Libby

Sales of hybrid and electric vehicles remain modest. And, the creation of the infrastructure to support the use of these vehicles is proceeding in fits and starts. In January, hybrid registrations accounted for just 2.29% of all new vehicle registrations in the U.S., down from 2.51% a year ago.Fuel Type Mix: January 2012 vs. January 2011

Looking at electric vehicle registrations, the good news is that the January total climbed eight-fold versus January 2011. The bad news is that the 2012 total was just .8% of the industry. Nissan Leaf registrations in January totaled 682, down from 910 in December and far below the monthly turn rate needed to generate the planned-for annual deliveries; meanwhile, GM recently announced a five-week closure of the Volt assembly line to reduce inventories. All vehicles powered by alternative powertrains, including hybrids, electrics and diesels, accounted for 5.11% of the industry in January, up from 5.02% a year ago, but still nothing to brag about.

On March 27, Azure Dynamics, which retrofits Ford Transit Connects to electric power, announced that it had halted production and filed for bankruptcy. Recently Fisker Automotive announced two recalls and a delay in receiving federal funds due to a failure to meet agreed-upon timetables. A123 Systems, which supplies batteries to Fisker, has just announced a recall that will cost more than $50 million. A123 also admitted that the failure of its battery in a Fisker Karma product had been the cause of the Karma's shutdown while being tested by Consumer Reports. Also, Bright Automotive, which had made plug-in hybrid vans, recently closed after it failed to secure federal loans.

Although the slow progress of hybrid and electric vehicles would suggest customer buying patterns are not changing as gas prices rise, data on the mix of four-, six-, and eight-cylinder gas-powered engines indicate otherwise. Customers are clearly moving to smaller powertrains. In 2011, four-cylinder engines captured almost 47% of all new vehicle registrations, up 44% and 15 percentage points from 2007. This past January, the four-cylinder mix was just a hair under 50%. In the midsize non-luxury car segment, one of the largest in the industry, the mix of four-cylinder powertrains climbed from 69% four years ago to 86% in 2011. And, as one would expect, installation rates for eight-cylinder powertrains have retreated, falling more than 30% to 16.55% of the market in 2011. Six-cylinder engines have also lost favor, though not to the degree of eights. In 2011 six-cylinder powertrains comprised about 35% of the market, down more than 15% from four years earlier.

Trended Engine Mix for Total U.S. Light Vehicle Industry

The data mentioned above are only through this past January, but gas prices have escalated considerably since then, so we can expect to see a continuation and possibly acceleration of the movement to smaller gas-powered engines. But the movement to hybrid and electric vehicles, which gets much more publicity, remains elusive.

Posted by Tom Libby, Lead Analyst, North American Forecasting, Polk (03.30.2012)


Filter Sort