Even High Gas Prices Can't Move Ungainly, Expensive Hybrid SUVs

Last Updated Mar 7, 2011 7:17 PM EST

Sure, it's news that hybrid car sales in the U.S. were up 39 percent in February. It's increasingly clear that high gas prices will trigger that effect, even if the trend reverses itself when those prices recede. But the rising tide is leaving some particularly big boats stranded on the shore. Even high gas prices can't sell a range of large and expensive SUV-based hybrids from General Motors, BMW, Mercedes and Porsche.

Something has to give
These tanks are proof you can't have it all -- huge size, V-8-level performance, luxurious accommodations and green credibility at an affordable price in the marketplace. Did Mercedes really sell just one of its ML450 hybrids in 2011, and none at all in February? Apparently so -- and it's not that surprising when the behemoth costs $55,790 and delivers only 21 mpg around town and 24 on the highway.

That's 46 percent more fuel efficient than the V-8 ML550, but so what? You could buy two 50-mpg Priuses for the same amount of green. The M Class as a whole, by the way, was actually up 16 percent with sales of 1,924 in February. So it's just the hybrid version that tanked in a big way.

Also showing dismal results was the BMW X6 ActiveHybrid, with only nine sales in February, and 14 in 2011 to date. The X6 is a technological tour de force, but it weighs an incredible 5,688 pounds and delivers just 18 mpg combined. With 45 sold, the Chevy Tahoe Hybrid is down 31.8 percent from last month. It's never sold well, and delivers just 20 mpg in the city and 23 on the highway.

GM's argument for its big SUV hybrids is that car buyers "need" performance, three rows of seats and towing ability. But gas at $4 a gallon, they're obviously willing to make sacrifices. At $68,675, the Porsche Cayenne hybrid (with just 21 mpg in the city) is a temptation many buyers can and will resist. Its sales of 142 in February were down 32.7 percent from January.

Auto buyers can add
Consumers aren't crazy: The $48,809 hybrid version of the Tahoe is a $13,000 premium over the base car. As U.S. News points out, "For that money, you could buy a gas-only Tahoe as a tow vehicle, but get a fuel-sipping Ford Fiesta (28/37 mpg) or Kia Forte (26/36 mpg) to commute in." GM should get rid of the Tahoe hybrid and concentrate on affordable hybrid versions of smaller passenger cars.

The only larger SUV-based hybrid to do remotely well was the $43,935 Lexus RX450h, which sold 999 and probably benefited from the halo effect around the Toyota Prius. If you're at the dealer and the Prius seems too small, they point you to the Lexus. Another plus is that, big as it is, the RX450h gets at least respectable fuel economy, 32 in the city and 28 on the highway.

And the Prius has some pretty long coattails, with 13,539 sales in February. That's up 69.9 percent from the same month last year and up 27.3 percent from last month. Consumers have spoken, they want their hybrids to get good fuel economy, and it helps if they're also not super-expensive.

Related: Photo: Flickr/Amenish Dewateremere
  • jim motavalli

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