Why do people consider or avoid vehicles with alternative powertrains, such as hybrids, flex fuel and clean diesel fuel models? Which models do car buyers perceive as environmentally friendly and how does that match up with reality?
Those are some of the questions answered in the 2008 Alternative Powertrain Study by J.D. Power and Associates, a global marketing information service firm.
The study includes what the company calls the Automotive Environmental Index. That index combines information from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency related to fuel economy, air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions for 2008 model-year vehicles and J.D. Power’s customer data related to stated fuel economy.
Feedback from vehicle owners is used to help determine the importance of these environmental factors. This is the third year for the study, which is made up of information from interviews with 4,000 people who plan to buy a new vehicle within the next two years.
Toyota has six vehicles, the most, among the AEI Top 30. Chevrolet, Honda and Nissan follow Toyota, which have three models each. Vehicles that make the Top 30 list not only perform well environmentally from a scientific perspective, but also are perceived by consumers as environmentally friendly, according to J.D. Power.
Eight of the Top 30 models are hybrid gas-electric vehicles, which means they combine a gasoline engine with an electric motor that provides a boost when more power is needed. These include the Ford Escape Hybrid, Honda Civic Hybrid, Lexus RX 400h, Mercury Mariner Hybrid, Nissan Altima Hybrid, Toyota Camry Hybrid, Toyota Highlander Hybrid and Toyota Prius.
The study also noted that consumers who own these hybrid vehicles reported that their actual fuel economy was less than the EPA rating, with the exception of the Camry Hybrid.
However, now that the EPA has implemented a new method to estimate miles per gallon effective with model year 2008 vehicles, there are much smaller differences than in the past.
The remaining models (mostly small cars) in the Top 30 of the index are the Chevrolet Aveo, Aveo5 and Cobalt; Ford Focus; Honda Civic and Fit; Hyundai Accent and Elantra; Kia Rio and Spectra; Mini Cooper and Cooper S; Nissan Sentra and Versa; Pontiac G5 and Vibe; Saturn Astra; smart fortwo; and the Toyota Corolla, Matrix and Yaris.
The study finds that more than 80 percent of consumers believe that the U.S. is currently faced with an energy crisis. Nearly 80 percent believe that gas prices will continue to rise, which will have a significant effect on the vehicles they will consider for purchase.
While most auto manufacturers have shifted production to focus on smaller vehicles, only 18 percent of the vehicle owners interviewed believe this issue can be addressed by focusing on small vehicles with better fuel economy.
Nearly 70 percent said they want automakers to invest more in existing and emerging alternative powertrain technologies. That is because they want it all. They want more than small cars to choose from. They still want their SUVs and pickup trucks, except they want them to get better fuel economy and be less polluting to the environment.
Approximately 30 percent of consumers believe that auto manufacturers should continue to produce a comparable vehicle lineup with a focus on hybrid-electric, clean diesel and flexible fuel vehicles.
An additional 39 percent believe manufacturers should focus on developing emerging technologies not widely available in the market, such as fuel cell and electric vehicles.
The study also finds that the percentage of consumers who are considering a hybrid vehicle is up from 50 percent in 2007 to 62 percent in 2008.
Consideration for Flexible Fuel Vehicles - those designed to run on gasoline or a blend of up to 85 percent ethanol - has decreased slightly from 47 percent in 2007 to 43 percent in 2008.
Showing price reactivity, demand for clean diesel vehicles showed the biggest decline from 23 percent in 2007 to 16 percent in 2008. The drop may be due to the substantial increase in the relative price of diesel since 2007, according to the study.