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Hybrids waiting to be plugged in

Hybrid cars are not best sellers on the Hungarian market. High prices, and few charging opportunities, are the main obstacles that stand in the way of sales growth.

On September 17, the first day of the car-free weekend in Budapest, a large group of people is hanging around the Toyota stand on Andrássy út. They are studying the leaflets, listening politely to the presentation by the company’s representatives, but what they are really here for is to take a ride with one of the full hybrid cars on display. All the great breeds of the Toyota hybrid stable are lined up here: the world-conquering Prius, the Auris HSD (successor to the Corolla) and the Lexus CT 200h, a piece of affordable luxury. On the outside, they look just as neat as their peers that run on traditional fuel. But under the hood, they have something that saves both money and the environment.

Hybrid cars have been on the market for quite some time. First, they were labeled weird, sluggish and very uncool. It took several years and stars such as Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz driving a Prius for their image to be revamped. The Hollywood boost was so successful that Prius has taken the lead in global hybrid sales. Since 2004, more than two million examples of this model have rolled off the assembly lines. Japan and the US are the main consumers, but Europe has started to catch up thanks to a number of directives drawn up by the EU. It has become chic to drive a hybrid, though only a few can afford it.

In Hungary, the recession has left its mark on car sales in general. New car sales in the compact car category have been dropping and are not expected to turn around anytime soon. What is taking place now is downsizing and downgrading: people look for smaller cars with fewer extras. In a market shrunk to a quarter of its previous size (an approximation from market insiders), it is little wonder that hybrid sales have stalled too.

There are several obstacles to hybrid cars’ expansion in Hungary. Their relatively high price tag is one, especially here where the single most important consideration of car buyers is price. That is followed by fuel consumption; rarely does anyone look at overall maintenance costs, something Western car owners and countries with a high number of hybrids watch. “Only a few will think of the costs of a brake replacement or tire changes that take place three times more in the case of a diesel than a hybrid,” Sándor Krajcsovics, manager of product communications and product training at Toyota Hungary told the Budapest Business Journal. The price of fuel is another factor eco- and money-conscious people consider: it is still lower (though not significantly) than gas. 

Full hybrids may promise much lower emission rates and overall costs, but it takes more to win people’s hearts. Convenience in the form of many charging stations could probably give the needed push to many. “To charge the batteries of a Prius (or any of Toyota’s full hybrids), you need a 230V plug,” Krajcsovics explains. For that, the driver gets to go 23 km without stopping again to recharge. Even if car owners have a plug at home, plugs in parking towers or the garages of office buildings would be needed, too.

Time spent charging could be incorporated in the price, Krajcsovics suggests. Being realistic about the country’s economic state, he would welcome ideas such as the free use of bus lanes by hybrid drivers. The lower registration fee (HUF 190,000 as opposed to anything from HUF 270,000 to HUF 3 million for non-hybrids) helps somewhat. But an emission-based tax system – like that used in the Netherlands – would do more to attract drivers. Until this is introduced however, carmakers cannot do other than try to adjust to low-budget needs.

In a bid to respond to affordability issues but also promote green thinking, Toyota will introduce the full hybrid version of the Yaris, its best-selling subcompact category car, next year.