Prius pushback: Hybrid inspires some hatred

Julie Wernau
Chicago Tribune

When people ask Chris Bellios what he drives, he says it's a Toyota — a black one.

"The stigma that goes with owning a Prius is palpable," said Bellios, 43, who loves his Prius so much he's owned two. Other drivers don't share his love. "I have never been tailgated so much as I have been with this car. No matter how fast I'm driving."

Hybrids — vehicles that switch between battery and gasoline power to save on fuel — have been around for 15 years. Yet the vehicles are still failing to win over the hearts and minds of mainstream consumers. Less than 4 percent of all vehicles sold last year were hybrids, and most that are sold are still Priuses.

"Though hybrid vehicles have moved beyond an early adopter audience, they still have a long way to go before they are truly mainstream in terms of industry share," said Erica Gartsbeyn, Toyota vehicle marketing and communications manager for Prius.

Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoettle, two researchers at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, set out this year to find out why.

They asked more than 1,000 hybrid owners and more than 1,000 nonhybrid owners their views on hybrid vehicles. Among their findings: One third of nonhybrid drivers said they didn't even consider buying a hybrid and 61 percent said they weren't planning to get one for their next vehicle either.

Those surveyed said they either hadn't considered buying one, thought they were expensive or were concerned about reliability. But when pressed, 46 percent said there was nothing that could change their mind — even if the vehicle was less expensive, more powerful or had more cargo area.

"We have a big obstacle here. Because it isn't really on their radar," Sivak said.

It's a significant hurdle, considering that hybrids and plug-ins are the only vehicles on the market today that would meet the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's 2025 carbon dioxide emissions targets, according to the agency's fuel economy trends report out this month.

Among those who would never buy a Prius is Daniel Kuczek, who grew up on V-8 sedans and likes to tinker with his Buick LeSabre and his Jeep Grand Cherokee. He doesn't see that happening with a hybrid, he said.

"It's more like driving an appliance than a car," said the 53-year-old from Cleveland.

That attitude doesn't surprise Allen Foster, general manager and vice president of Smart Motors in Madison, Wisconsin, the largest dealer of hybrid vehicles in the Midwest.

He said that at first people were confused about the technology but that in recent years, the technology has become fairly mainstream. The issue is perception.

"We'll have people who will say, 'Show me anything but a hybrid. I'll look at anything but a hybrid,' " he said. "They don't think it's worth the extra premium for the cost of the vehicle. The return on investment would take too long. They don't like the stigma attached to owning a hybrid."

If hybrids have a perception problem, it isn't because their owners are unhappy. Hybrid owners surveyed as part of the Michigan study overwhelmingly loved their cars — 93 percent said they'd never had a hybrid-specific problem with their car and 88 percent said they intend to buy one again.

"When gas prices went up, everyone was trading their cars in for a Prius," said Ivan Drury, senior analyst at auto information company

Like the downsized turbo-boosted engines that have become mainstream among drivers who were reticent of the technology at first, "hybrid" and "car" were supposed to be synonymous by now.

Instead, "hybrid" became another word for "Prius." The car enjoyed more than 50 percent market share among an otherwise splintered hybrid category for more than a decade — plenty of time to pick up a little baggage. In the struggle to make hybrid mainstream, the Prius became a symbol for drivers who wanted to set themselves apart.

Take 42-year Keesha Beckford, who wrote on Twitter this month, "If you drive a Prius you shouldn't be flicking cigarette ashes out of your window. Bits of kale maybe, but not cigarettes."

In an interview, she told the Chicago Tribune that she associates the car with "self-righteousness and frivolity." She gets the same feeling of disgust when she sees a Prius, she said, as she does when she sees its gas-guzzling nemesis, the Hummer.

Fox News featured a trend called "rolling coal" — in which diesel vehicles are modified to increase fuel to the engine and emit black smoke — saying that it was, in part, in response to the Prius drivers. In fact, the news channel said, it is used as a "Prius repellent."

It's also an apparent response to the Obama administration's fight to lower carbon emissions. Carmakers must have a fleetwide average of 54.5 miles per gallon by model year 2025 under the Obama administration's new fuel efficiency standard. Coal rollers said their tricked-out vehicles are a kind of protest against tightening restrictions on carbon.

Hybrids and electric vehicles aren't leading the way toward lowering carbon, says the EPA.

"The majority of the carbon and oil savings from current vehicles is due to new gasoline vehicle technologies," the agency said in its trends report.

Transmissions with six or more speeds, continuously variable transmissions, variable valve timing and multivalve engines, gasoline direct injection engine and turbochargers have become commonplace, if not ubiquitous.

Meanwhile, Toyota said it's been working to overcome "stereotypes" about the Prius, including that it is unstylish and that there is just one kind of Prius owner.