Study: Interest in hybrid vehicles rising

June 24, 2008 11:13:40 AM PDT
Inspired by spiking gas prices and growing concern for the environment, U.S. consumers are showing more interest in hybrid vehicles despite their higher price tag, according to a survey released Tuesday. Seventy-two percent of recent car buyers said they're definitely or probably interested in getting a hybrid for their next vehicle, up from 58 percent of consumers in 2005, the survey by marketing and consulting firm J.D. Power and Associates showed.

But once the average $5,000 price differential for a hybrid was revealed, just 46 percent said they still were interested.

Mike Marshall, director of automotive emerging technologies at J.D. Power, said rising gas prices and a heightened effort by consumers to be more environmentally conscious are at the root of the increased interest in fuel-efficient and low-emission hybrids.

He said hybrids held up well despite their cost and were the top vehicle technology feature over $500 in which buyers were interested.

By comparison, consumers remain skeptical of clean diesel technology, which can improve fuel economy by 30 percent over traditional engines and has a lower premium of $1,800. Just 37 percent said they were interested in the technology, the study said.

Marshall said consumers don't have much knowledge of diesel technology, but that could change as more offerings hit the market. "There's a lot of education that's needed on alternative powertrains and alternative fuels, diesel in particular because of its performance in the first round, the noisy, the dirty round," he said. "That's not where diesel is today."

While car buyers' interest in hybrids is growing, their fascination is highest for cheaper new technologies such as backup assist cameras.

The study found that interest was highest for blind spot detection, at 76 percent; backup assist, at 74 percent; and navigation systems, at 73 percent. But interest fell once the $1,500 premium for navigation systems and the $500 price tag for blind spot detection was revealed.

When prices were revealed, interest was highest in backup assist, at 68 percent; active cornering headlights, at 65 percent; and wireless connectivity systems, at 53 percent. All three of those options are $300 or less.

Marshall said safety features have long dominated the study but have recently fallen behind other features like voice-activated wireless connectivity and other entertainment options. Last year, he said, premium surround sound was one of the top five features in the study.

Marshall said automakers are paying attention to that trend and are bringing what used to be thought of as luxury features into mainstream brands more quickly. One example is the Microsoft Corp. system known as "Sync" in Ford Motor Co. vehicles that will expand into Hyundai Motor Co. and Kia Motor Co. vehicles soon. The system allows people to use voice commands to control personal music players and telephones.

J.D. Power surveyed 19,000 people in April who purchased or leased a new vehicle in the last three years.