Hybrid Hype Heightens in Canada

by : Anthony Fontanelle

It took six years for the Toyota Motor Corp. to sell 10,000 hybrids in Canada. The milestone was yielded after the Japanese automaker released its legendary Prius in 2000. According to analysts in the industry, it will take around a year for the Japanese automaker to sell the same quantity of this year's sales momentum is constant.

In Canada, hybrids are selling like hot pancakes. Gone are the days when the automaker has to exert extra effort to wow shoppers into purchasing green cars. Touting hybrids is no longer necessary. The hybrid hype heightens and becomes an enduring auto phenomenon. And the said change of heart of shoppers redounds to the benefit of green car manufacturers.

A shift in public opinion towards the cleanest automobiles is taking place, said Stephen Beatty, the managing director of Toyota Canada Inc. And that is making cars once glorified by Hollywood stars and technology early-adopters more mainstream.

"It's like a switch has been thrown," Beatty told the Financial Post. "[People] have just kind of woken up to hybrid in a big way this year."

Toyota, set to overtake General Motors Corp. as the largest automaker in the world, has sold more hybrids through the first eight months of 2007 in Canada than in all of 2006. From January to the end of August, combined sales of Toyota and Lexus hybrids totaled 5,937 units. Sales are being hampered only by available supply, added Beatty.

In the United States, where US$3-a-gallon gasoline is expected to fuel hybrid vehicle sales to an annual record, Prius is one of the top ten passenger cars, according to Automotive News data.

In Canada, federal rebates introduced in March promising up to $2,000 to buyers of the most fuel efficient vehicles have helped push up Toyota's hybrid volumes, Beatty said, even if the government has not yet begun handing out the money. Ottawa is transferring responsibility of processing the rebate applications from the ministry of transport to the ministry of human resources, according to the privy council office.

At present, five provinces, including B.C. and Ontario, also offer hybrid incentives.

Federal measures have sweetened the pot further for hybrid buyers in those provinces while providing a lift to sales in parts of the country that had no incentives, Beatty said. Matter of fact, four out of every ten Camrys Toyota sells in B.C. is a hybrid version. Efforts by high-profile people like former U.S. vice-president Al Gore to draw attention to climate change have also energized public opinion about green issues, Beatty added.

Analysts have noted that Canadians generally already drive the smallest fuel-efficient vehicles, which may be preventing hybrids from gaining more market share.

Toyota is not the only auto manufacturer to make significant hybrid profits. Sales of Honda Canada Inc.'s Civic hybrid have increased by 80 percent this year over last year, to 1,421 units. Sales of Ford of Canada's Escape hybrid soared by 68 percent, to 743 units. Sales are still expected to rise, analysts added. The hype could also pull the sales of and other auto parts.

General Motors of Canada Ltd. said ten percent of the Saturn Vue sport utility vehicles and approximately five percent of the Saturn Aura cars it now sells are hybrids.

"Hybrids really are jumping off dealer lots," said Charles Schade, the senior director of research at J.D.Power & Associates in Toronto. "There has been clearly some general acceptance to do the right thing for the environment."

GM said earlier this year that it would be the first automaker to build hybrid vehicles in Canada. The Detroit-based automaker plans on making electric and petrol-engine powered versions of its Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra trucks at its Oshawa, Ont. truck plant. The manufacture of the said pickups in Canada will start next year.