EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

May 6, 2012

Sales of hybrid, electric cars take off

By Cara Hogan
chogan@eagletribune.com

When a new hybrid Prius is delivered to the Rockingham Toyota Scion dealership in Salem, N.H., it sells almost immediately.

"Every time we get one on the lot, it lasts about five hours," said Marc Smith, the general sales manager. "Most times, it's gone before it even reaches the dealership."

High gas prices and consumers' desire for greener vehicles are driving sales of efficient gas, hybrid and electric cars, dealers and customers said.

In the first four months of 2012, hybrid car sales were up 37.2 percent over last year. Electric car sales were up a staggering 323 percent, but that number is a little deceiving because sales are very low nationally.

That compares to a 13.4 percent hike in other car sales, according to Alan Baum of Baum and Associates, a market research firm.

"Obviously, gas prices are driving the demand," Baum said. "But availability and more options for consumers are also adding to the boom."

Rockingham Toyota Scion sold 13 hybrid cars last month, Smith said.

"The boom kicked in in February as gas prices started to move up," he said. "We could sell a lot more than 13 if we had the cars."

What started as a niche market has expanded to more than 40 different hybrid and electric models.

The Northeast and California continue to be the strongest markets, Baum said.

In Massachusetts, hybrid car registrations accounted for 1.1 percent in 2009 and 2010, according to the state Department of Transportation. In 2011, that number dropped slightly to 6,102 of 697,000 cars, just under 1 percent.

The number of electric cars remains low, but it has more than doubled in the past few years, to 124 cars in 2011.

"Citizens are interested in improving the environment and improving their costs," said Mark Sylvia, commissioner of the Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. "We're not concerned about a slight decrease because there has been the introduction of electric vehicles. A number of manufacturers identified Massachusetts as a place they want to make their hybrid and electric cars available."

Charles Daher of Commonwealth Motors of Lawrence said sales of electric cars are picking up after a slow start.

"While there was a lot of buzz and interest when they were first introduced, there was no real rush to buy," Daher said. "Over the last six months the interested got serious to the point that we are short of inventory. The Chevy Volt has become one our most popular models, and the new Nissan Leaf is starting to generate a lot of interest and sales also."

Lower cost, more options drive sales

The number of hybrid cars registered in New Hampshire grew from 5,364 in 2009 to 7,139 in 2011, according to the Department of Environmental Services. Hybrid cars account for only 0.006 percent of registered cars, according to Rebecca Ohler, transportation and energy programs manager for DES.

"The numbers are up because the costs of hybrid cars are coming down at the same time gas prices are coming up," she said. "The cost of producing the hybrid battery is decreasing as the technology gets better."

A few years ago, hybrid cars cost as much as $40,000, but prices are down to around $25,000 on many models.

Hybrids accounted for about 20 percent of total sales last month at Jaffarian Toyota in Haverhill, according to owner Gary Jaffarian.

"We could sell more hybrids if we had them," he said.

Sales increased as Toyota began to offer more models, Jaffarian said.

As hybrid and electric options expand, so do high-mileage gas vehicles. Those cars are more attractive to some customers, according to Sue Perino, sales consultant at Regan Ford in Haverhill.

"We sold about 25 Fusion hybrids and 10 hybrid Escapes for all of 2011," she said. "You would think that a lot of people would go crazy over them, but they are costly, about $30,000. Now, the four-cylinder engines have such good fuel economy, people seem to go to the gas engine."

There's little difference in miles per gallon between the Focus at 40 and the hybrid Focus at 41, she said.

Electric car sales could start to climb

This summer, the dealership will have the new 2013 all-electric Focus.

"I can't wait to see the electric," Perino said. "It plugs into a station and gets about 84 miles per gallon. I think it's going to be a big hit with people. To not have to put gas in is amazing."

Ben Townes, sales consultant and electric vehicle specialist for Salem Nissan, said he thinks electric car sales will take off.

"The market just opened up here for the Leaf right before Christmas," he said. "We haven't sold a car, but I do have a number of interested customers."

The Leaf has about a 100-mile range and the fuel savings are even greater than a hybrid. Unless gas falls below $1.50 a gallon, Townes said, the Leaf will always be less expensive.

But many people are nervous about switching to electric, especially since there are few public charging stations. That means electric car owners need to install one at home — at a cost of $800 to $2,000.

Lease a Leaf and the charging dock is included, Townes said.

"It's difficult for some people to make a jump and change to new technology," he said. "People are concerned about charging station, like what if I want to drive the car across the country?"

It's something New Hampshire and other states are working on. There are just three locations in the Granite State, one at Salem Nissan, the two others at hotels.

"I think as electric cars become more available, the numbers will grow," said Ohler of DES. "But we need to first work on expanding the availability of charging stations. We're working with an 11-state consortium to identify likely transportation corridors for electric charging stations, so someone can drive from Maryland to Maine."

Across the border, there is a charging station at the Merrimack Valley Regional Transit Authority in Haverhill and one at the 99 Restaurant in Andover.

For some customers, the allure of hybrid and electric cars is all about cost.

Nancy Cyr of North Andover, 72, said she bought her first hybrid car about a year ago from Jaffarian Toyota.

"Before, I had a van that was getting 17 miles per gallon and I was spending $1,000 a month in gas," she said. "I couldn't afford it anymore. I decided on the Prius because it got very good mileage. I put in maybe nine gallons and can go 500 miles. It's great."

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