Market News

 August 15, 2013
Where is the hybrid or plug-in minivan in America?

Will there ever be a hybrid or plug-in minivan buzzing down American streets?

Not in the immediate future.

There have been rumblings from automakers and grumblings from minivan lovers for a hybrid minivan in North America for over a decade, ever since the Toyota Estima Hybrid launched in Japan in 2001.

Also known as the Previa, the Toyota Estima is a four-wheel drive hybrid that gets roughly 44 mpg (after converting its 18 kilometers per liter to miles per gallon). Toyota has no plans for a hybrid minivan in the US based on how US owners use their Siennas, says Jana Hartline, a spokesperson for Toyota. Minivan owners evidently like to haul multiple people and lots of gear, and we like plenty of power.

"We only sell the 3.5-liter V6 with 268 horsepower now and the 2.7-liter L4 was discontinued a couple of years ago based on low demand," Hartline said of the Sienna.

We want fuel economy but we want power and the ability to carry a lot of weight. All of these factors would reduce the effectiveness of a hybrid or plug-in on fuel economy. Other speculation on car forums clamoring for the hybrid minivan is that it wouldn't meet stringent U.S. safety requirements. It would end up weighing about the same as the Toyota Sienna, again reducing the effectiveness of its hybrid gains.

While the demand is there in theory, the price point most likely is not. Minivan owners are among the most cost-conscious shoppers, prizing utility and value. To import the Toyota Estima using a Japanese auto company called Bafta would cost over $50,000 after shipping.

It has sold only 98,293 units in Japan through Feb 2013, according to Hartline. Doesn't seem worth the cost for automakers.

What number of minivan buyers would buy a $50,000 hybrid minivan? According to CNBC in March, minivans are on the decline, making up just three percent of total auto sales. Only 500,000 were sold in 2012. In 2000, there were 1.37 million sold.

Ford and Chevy don't even make a minivan anymore. Kia and Hyundai are testing a market dominated by the Honda Odyssey, Toyota Sienna and the Chrysler Town and Country. It's all about the crossover, or CUV, these days. It's neither minivan nor wagon nor sport utility vehicle, shaking off the stigmas of each into its own hip sub-class. CUVs are more fuel efficient than SUVs, sharper looking than minivans and more versatile in terms of passengers than a wagon.

Automakers are offering plug-in or hybrid models in more broadly appealing cars, like the Toyota Highlander Hybrid, which seats 7, or on the smaller end, the Ford C-Max Hybrid or Energi. As a crossover, the C-Max is more like a Honda CRV than a minivan. It's a mini minivan; such nomenclature will surely tarnish its appeal.

A spokesperson for Honda, which claims that its 2014 Odyssey minivan is the class leader in fuel economy with an EPA estimated 22 mpg, is keen on pushing the Honda Fit EV, a competitor to the Toyota Prius V, two models that appeal to the minivan buyer who is dissatisfied with the lack of hybrid options.

A domestically-produced Ford C-Max makes for an insightful comparison in terms of how much more expensive a hybrid or plug-in is.

2013 C-Max Hybrid SE: $25,995

2013 C-Max Energi plug-in: $33,745 (30 percent more than the hybrid SE).

But what about the federal tax credit of $7,500? Don't forget state rebates, like the $4,000 you can qualify for in Illinois. The C-Max Energi plug-in effectively becomes cheaper than a hybrid.

Ford is not selling an internally combusted C-Max yet, but if you were to look at the Fusion as a point of comparison, the Fusion plug-in is 59 percent more expensive than the internally combusted engine; the hybrid is 15 percent more expensive. After tax credits and rebates, the Fusion plug-in is comparable in sticker price to the hybrid.

If those incentives hold fast, then would minivan shoppers pay 15 percent more for a hybrid minivan? Would there be a reduction in costs based on how we drive our minivans?

Automakers aren't willing to make that gamble at this point in the infancy stages of the plug-in market. Since they haven't determined a hybrid to be cost effective, it's likely the same outlook for plug-ins.

Yet they're still testing them out. Chrysler deployed a fleet of plug-in hybrid Town and Country minivans in 2012. The Town and Country PHEV has a 3.6-liter gas engine and a 12.1 kwh lithium ion battery, giving it an electric-only range of 22 miles. It can get between 30-40 mpg, according to Jim Motavalli in Plug in Cars.

They were intended solely to test the technology of reverse power-flow technology, not fuel economy, says Eric Mayne, spokesperson for Chrysler. "The market trend [for minivans] favors internal combustion engines," he says.

There are hybrid and plug-in options, just not for minivans.