Detroit rolls out hybrids

DETROIT — In the race to claim ever-higher fuel-economy numbers and keep up with government regulations, automakers are rolling out hybrids and electric cars aplenty at this week's Detroit auto show.

If only buyers were arriving as fast as the cars.

Hybrid sales waned as gasoline prices ebbed in 2011, declining to 2.2 percent of the market from 2.4 percent a year earlier, according to the research firm LMC Automotive. Meanwhile, sales of the Nissan Leaf electric car and the Chevrolet Volt plug-in each fell short of expectations.

Analysts do not expect the segment to grow significantly this year: The combination of gas prices below $4 a gallon and higher upfront costs for the cars is not attracting consumers.

But that is not deterring Toyota, Honda, Ford Motor and several European carmakers from introducing new hybrid and plug-in models.


Automakers have little choice but to develop more hybrids as they prepare for fuel-efficiency requirements that call for significant increases later this decade.

Advances such as Ford's EcoBoost technology have increased mileage for gas-powered engines — the new Fusion midsize sedan it unveiled Monday can get 37 mpg, Ford said — but bigger gains are needed.

''Internal combustion can't get all the way there, so you need an alternative," said Russell Hensley, a partner with the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. "The only alternative we have at the moment is electrification."

Sales of the most popular hybrid, the Toyota Prius, declined 3.2 percent in 2011, after disruptions caused by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, where it is built. The Prius accounted for almost half of all hybrids sold.

Toyota will unveil the Prius c, a smaller version, today. It began selling the larger Prius v in the fall and plans to bring out a plug-in Prius this spring.

Toyota also is showing off a plug-in hybrid concept called the NS4 on Tuesday. Its premium brand, Lexus, on Monday unveiled a hybrid concept sports coupe.

Honda showed off two cars, the ILX and NSX, that will be the first-ever hybrids for its upscale Acura brand. Honda said it plans to build a new plant in Ohio to assemble the NSX.

Ford is taking away the hybrid option on its small sport utility vehicle, the Escape, but it is bringing out hybrid and plug-in versions of the Fusion, which it introduced Monday.

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