High gas prices are taking a toll on drivers, who are following in the footsteps of such famous hybrid vehicle owners as Leonardo DiCaprio, Johnny Depp and Jack Black. According to a recent survey released by R.L. Polk and Co., nationwide registrations for new hybrid vehicles are on the rise —350,289 hybrids were registered in 2007, which reflects a 28 percent increase from the previous year. The Toyota Prius continued to lead this vehicle segment with 179,178 total new registrations, or 51.2 percent of hybrid market share.
So, what does this mean for our nation's independent repair shops? Plenty, says Amy Mattinat, co-owner of the Montpelier, Vt.-based Auto Craftsman, where every last technician to set foot in the bays has been certified to work on hybrid vehicles.
"It's expensive to go down that hybrid road," Mattinat says. "It's a real investment for a shop. But I don't see any way to not do it, especially since that’s where the technology is going."
Mattinat estimates that she has spent approximately $8,000 to date sending her technicians to training classes and purchasing equipment, such as scan tools, that would allow her technicians to work on hybrid vehicles. But she sees the initial expenditure as an investment in the shop's future, especially as hybrid vehicles become more popular with drivers.
"In our business, we try to do 50 percent maintenance and 50 percent repair work," she adds. "These days, maintenance is what it's all about. And if the hybrid people start going to the dealers for maintenance, that's a lot of work that's going to get left off the table for us."
Mattinat also notes that there is currently six individual hybrid vehicle technologies in play, making it even more difficult for technicians to keep up with changing trends.
"There is no one generic hybrid technology," Mattinat says. "Take the Toyota Prius. It uses a completely different technology from the Honda Civic Hybrid. I think this is part of the difficulty the independent shops are facing — customers themselves don't understand the technology, and it makes them skittish. They can't see taking it to anyone but the dealer, who they perceive as understanding the technology very well. The aftermarket absolutely has to keep up with this technology, or we'll be left behind."
However, according to Lonnie Millier, director of Industry Analysis at Polk, consumers are benefiting from new hybrid launches.
"There is a lot of excitement being generated within the industry as manufacturers adjust plans to adapt to consumer demand," Miller says. "While the Toyota Prius has a stronghold on the midsize car hybrid segment, the Toyota Highlander and Ford Escape share leadership positions in the SUV hybrid segment. As hybrid buyers migrate within a brand, manufacturers have to be prepared to meet their expectations for offerings if they want consumers to remain loyal."
While most of the market continues to see hybrid models enabled by various forms of gas-electric powertrains, the entire hybrid segment will evolve as other technologies are developed and tested. With the end-goal of providing more fuel-efficient vehicles, future offerings will expand beyond the current generation of hybrid models.
"Hybrids are a great foray into the world of fuel-efficiency for many buyers," adds Miller. "Unfortunately, we still have an uphill battle for diesel and ethanol adoption given the need for more consumer education and improvements with filling station infrastructure. It will be interesting to see how more advanced technologies progress this whole category, but they can't come soon enough."
Polk's analysis shows that buyers of specific hybrid models predominantly come from the vehicle segment shared by their new hybrid purchase. In 2007, 55 percent of new hybrid buyers previously had a midsize car, midsize SUV or small car model. These vehicle segments represent the majority of the volume in the hybrid category and indicate consumers may be predisposed to a body style first before choosing a hybrid model.
For manufacturers' marketing departments, these findings mean they may be able to repurpose some of the brand research and customer studies for non-hybrid models when creating new hybrid offerings or hybrid marketing campaigns. In addition, more luxury hybrids are available than ever before, allowing customers to obtain a hybrid without sacrificing features, amenities and performance they might otherwise be used to.
Geographic trends for the segment remain largely unchanged in 2007, with California continuing to hold 26 percent of hybrid market share followed by Florida, New York, Texas and Washington. For the second year in a row, Oklahoma had the greatest increase, up nearly 148 percent. Similarly, Los Angeles and San Francisco led cities nationwide combined with more than 19 percent of the segment's market share.
"The coasts continue to dominate the hybrid segment, though we continue to see gains in the Midwest as fuel prices hit home for the 'manufacturing belt' states," notes Miller.
Even though the hybrid registrations are rising, Mattinat says that drivers are not yet 100 percent comfortable taking their hybrids to an independent repair shop. But with more and more shops becoming hybrid certified, she says that consumers would be wise to consider the aftermarket for the maintenance and repair of these vehicles.
"Has having hybrid-certified technicians given me more business? Some, but not a ton," says Mattinat. "The customers trickle in. Our more established customers are willing to bring their hybrids to us, because they understand that they get more for their money in the aftermarket. But new clients are not yet comfortable walking away from the dealer. Not yet. In time, they will be."
Still, whether or not they are seeing an increase in business from the new hyrids on the road, Mattinat says there is no way for shop owners to ignore this cutting edge technology unless they want to get left behind.
"This is going to be a continual change," she warns. "We can't just learn how to replace the brakes on a hybrid vehicle and expect to do that for the next 20 years. We have to keep up, because the technology is happening so fast."