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Smart Motors - Maison's Hot For Hybrids
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Thomas Content

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Look at a U.S. map for hybrid car sales hot spots and you'll see they're all the rage in California, the Pacific Northwest and some pockets of the East Coast.

Peer a little closer, and you'll find just one spot in the rest of the country where hybrids are big sellers: Madison, Wis.

While the number of hybrids sold compared with all cars remains small, it's growing fast. Between 2011 and 2012, hybrids' share of new-vehicle sales nationally rose from 2.4% to 3.4%, according to registration data analyzed by Edmunds.com.

Places like Madison lead the charge.

In Madison, hybrids accounted for 4.2% of new-vehicle sales last year. And so far this year, hybrids are even more popular, accounting for 4.7% of registrations.

To be sure, Wisconsin's capital city has some of the key hallmarks of a hybrid hub — university town, progressive tradition.
In college towns, buyers are "a lot more inclined to try hybrid technologies," said Jeremy Acevedo, automotive analyst at Edmunds.com.

Among top hybrid cities, other college towns that appear on the list include Charlottesville, Va., Eugene, Ore., and Gainesville, Fla.
The rise in hybrid sales is less dependent on the price of gas than it used to be, Acevedo said. "It's coming from a lot of strong new models. It used to be you were going to have to drive a wedge-shaped compact car if you wanted a hybrid.

"Now you have a few midsize cars ... and so you can buy a car that looks like a car that you can drive around," Acevedo said.
At Smart Motors, a Madison-based Toyota hybrid sales leader, John Dolan says that in some months this year, nearly every other car sold has been a hybrid.

"Our buyers are no longer the eco-types or the electrical-engineering types," said Dolan. "They're mainstream buyers."
An emerging demographic is the go-betweens, couples who live in between Madison and Milwaukee, with one spouse commuting east and the other commuting west.

"They want a fuel-efficient car because their commutes are getting longer," Dolan said.

The hybrid market is mature enough that Eric Powers, founder of the Madison Hybrid Group, no longer is sponsoring the Green Drive Expo, typically held in July in conjunction with the Dane County Fair.

Powers staged seven years of expos in Madison as well as three green drive expos in northern California. The point was to educate the marketplace, and that was accomplished, he said.

"We accomplished our goal of getting the word out there. We educated tens of thousands of people," he said.

These days, Powers has a new business — the first in Wisconsin to focus exclusively on service, maintenance, recalibration and replacement of hybrid vehicle batteries.

"We've been sort of watching this for some time," said Powers, who spoke about hybrid battery technology at this month's Midwest Renewable Energy Association Energy Fair in north-central Wisconsin. "We knew even last year it was a little early to try to do it; we had to wait until there were enough people out of warranty" so they wouldn't just head straight to their car dealership.

Dealers themselves remain busy. Smart Motors just installed a charging station to allow customers who buy a plug-in Prius to charge up.

Dolan, of Smart Motors, said he loves the plug-in Prius he's been driving. He relies so little on gasoline that he missed the surge in gas prices that took hold across Wisconsin and the Midwest in recent weeks.

"The last time I put gas in it was early May," he said.

By avoiding the highway and keeping the tank less than half full, Dolan says he's saving a bit on weight and giving his fuel economy another nudge.

"I don't want to be just hauling gas just in case I need it," he said.
Early on, automotive forecasters were skeptical, Dolan said, noting that some industry consultants projected hybrids wouldn't account for 3% of sales until at least 2015. Hybrid sales passed that threshold last year.

And forecasters are now pegging hybrid and electric vehicle sales as high as 8% of total sales by the end of the decade.

Navigant Research, in a forecast issued this month, projects that traditional hybrid sales will surpass 500,000 this year for the first time and then grow to more than 1 million by 2020, for an average annual growth rate of 11%.

Even faster increases are pegged for plug-in hybrids, which are expected to grow to about 1.2% of new car sales by 2020, up from about 0.4% today, said Dave Hurst, Navigant principal research analyst.

Hurst says perceptions about hybrids have often been skewed by the giddy optimism of enthusiasts and the pessimism of those skeptical of new technology.

"The reality has always been in between somewhere," he said. "The pessimists have always said the market was going to die very rapidly and that hybrids were throwing money down the drain. The optimists said we'd have 1million plug-ins by 2015, and that hasn't proven true.

"We frankly never thought that we were going to hit that mark from the beginning," he said. "But the fact is, plug-ins are growing faster now than hybrids did originally."

Hurdles remain for a broader impact, including the fact that certain vehicle types just don't have hybrid versions available.

"Part of the challenge facing hybrids is still that they haven't gone into all the different segments," said Hurst, noting that General Motors has been the only carmaker so far to offer a hybrid version of a pickup truck or large sport utility vehicle.

The higher price of hybrids remains a challenge, and automakers are increasingly expected to use other, less expensive fuel-saving technologies to help boost gas mileage and comply with national climate-change regulations.

Whereas 1 million traditional hybrids are expected to be sold in 2020, the number of vehicles using start-stop technology that year will reach nearly 10 million, said Hurst of Navigant. Start-stop is a next generation of batteries that stop and then restart the car's engine at red lights.

The popularity of start-stop vehicles carries significance for the economy in Wisconsin, where the state's largest employer, Johnson Controls Inc., is the leading supplier of advanced batteries that enable the technology to work.

"The technology is gaining more traction in the U.S., particularly as fuel economy standards start rising and become more aggressive. It's going to be one of the technologies that have to be adopted to meet some of those (mandates)," Hurst said.

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