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Petrol-eclectic: Honda's Insight (left) will be joined on sale by another all-new dedicated hybrid, the Lexus CT200h (bottom), within weeks.

Consumers choose petrol and diesel over hybrid or battery electric vehicle tech

14 Mar 2011

A STUDY has found the number of new-vehicle buyers who intend to purchase hybrid or all-electric vehicles in Australia has dropped in the past three years, while their intention to purchase conventional petrol and diesel vehicles increased.

Fresh research by Synovate, the market research arm of the Aegis Group, indicates that the race by car-makers to offer more economical – and usually more expensive – hi-tech alternatives to traditional petrol and diesel engines has so far not been matched by public demand in Australia.

According to the ‘Alternative Fuels’ study conducted in November, most respondents (62 per cent) named petrol engines as the technology they were most likely to choose for their next new vehicle – up five percentage points from 57 per cent in 2007.

Similarly, although indicative demand for turbo-petrol technology remained static at 41 per cent, purchase consideration for turbo-diesel technology increased from 39 to 40 per cent.

During the same period, however, the number of people who intended to buy hybrid vehicles fell by seven points, from 50 to 43 per cent.

Although LPG was not specifically surveyed, consideration of flex-fuel (ethanol) technology fell by four points to 32 per cent, fuel cell power was six points less popular at 26 per cent and battery-electric vehicles were considered by just 22 per cent – down nine points from 31 per cent in 2007.

The findings were taken from an online research study conducted in November 2010 with 725 Australians who recently purchased a new car or intended to do so.

Synovate, which employs more than 6700 staff in 62 countries, said it focused on understanding the types of alternative fuels that customers are interested in, what the perceived barriers are and how likely they are to switch to these alternative energy sources in each vehicle segment.

“The findings are that whilst car manufacturers are developing alternative engine technologies to the traditional petrol engine, consumers are not following suit,” Synovate research analyst Marie-Claire Buaud told GoAuto.

The first wave of the study in 2007 – before the GFC but during a significant rise in petrol prices – revealed that two-thirds of consumers would take into account both vehicle emissions and fuel economy when purchasing their next vehicle.

According to the 2010 survey, fuel economy is more important to consumers than vehicle emissions, with only 50 per cent of consumers likely to consider both.

Of course, the second wave of research late last year took place during a relatively low fuel price environment, before the cost of petrol increased to current highs of around $1.50/litre in many capitals.

Petrol prices reached £6/gallon ($2.10/litre) in the UK for the first time last week and some industry analysts have forecast petrol prices of $2.00/litre by the end of 2011 in Australia.

 center imageMeantime, the federal government will impose a 2.5-cent/litre excise on LPG from July this year, just months before Ford and Holden release new LPG systems for the Falcon and Commodore respectively. This will grow to 12.5 cents over the following five years, representing a $540 million windfall for the commonwealth.

LPG Australia says that a car powered by LPG, which is about half the price of petrol at the bowser, emits up to 13 per cent less carbon emissions than an equivalent petrol vehicle.

Yet according to VFACTS, sales of LPG passenger vehicles to private buyers shrank by one per cent last year, while sales of LPG passenger cars to non-private customers reduced by 21.2 per cent.

In comparison, private sales of petrol passenger vehicles increased by 9.2 per cent (non-private: six per cent), and private sales of diesel vehicles increased by 33 per cent (non-private: 17.4 per cent).

Naturally, diesel power continues to dominate the SUV sector and, as GoAuto has reported, Ford expects that, with the help of its new Territory TDCi, diesel engines will comprise half of all medium SUV sales in Australia by year’s end.

However, oil-burners have infiltrated Australia’s luxury car market, too, with one-third of all premium models from the big three German brands being diesel-powered here last year – more than three times the overall market average of 12 per cent.

Last year 52 per cent of all BMWs sold in Australia were diesel (up from 38 per cent in 2009), while a record 35 per cent of all Audis bought were diesel.

The Synovate study also reflects local sales of hybrid vehicles, which offer reduced fuel economy and, especially, CO2 emissions compared to petrol and diesel engines.

Toyota’s dedicated-hybrid Prius suffered a 47 per cent sales slump in 2010 – the same year Toyota released its cheaper Australian-made Camry Hybrid, which has attracted lower than expected numbers of private customers.

Thanks largely to the petrol-electric Camry, private sales of hybrid passenger vehicles increased by 144 per cent from a low base in 2009 to 1769 units last year, while non-private hybrid sales lifted by 154 per cent to 7058 units.

Total Camry sales increased 20 per cent last year, but are down almost 22 per cent so far in 2011. Prius sales have also continued to slide, down almost 63 per cent year to date.

In January, Honda sold just 31 examples of its new Insight, Australia’s most affordable hybrid at $29,990, plus 113 in 2010 (following its launch in late November) and a further 90 in February – well down on Honda’s 200/month forecast.

Presently, the only factory-made pure-EVs available here are Mitsubishi’s lease-only i-MiEV city car and the new Tesla Roadster sportscar.

Australia’s first mainstream electric vehicles will go on sale next year, when both GM Holden’s plug-in hybrid Volt and Nissan’s battery-electric Leaf will be released. Without government subsidies, however, both models will be significantly more expensive than equivalent small cars.

The Synovate study also found that 36 per cent of respondents viewed fuel consumption as a key way to reducing their monthly expenditure – up from 20 per cent in 2007.

However, while 42 per cent said they consciously tried to drive more efficiently in the past year, a similar proportion (39 per cent) said they made no significant change to their driving behaviour.

“Whilst the automobile industry is leaping ahead with the development of alternative engine technologies, consumers are not ready to make the shift from the traditional combustion engines,” said Synovate of its survey results.

“The first wave of the study back in 2007 revealed two-thirds of consumers would take into account both vehicle emissions and fuel economy when purchasing their next vehicle.

“This initial research came amidst a significant rise in petrol prices (and occurred pre-GFC), which at that point in time triggered a sudden growth in the attractiveness of alternative propulsion systems such as electric hybrid vehicles.

“A repeat of the study in late 2010 revealed that consumers are now more likely to consider traditional combustion engines, whilst consideration of clean alternatives like hybrids and electric cars, has dropped.

“Although petrol prices have risen since late 2010, carbon emissions are less of a concern these days than they were in 2007.”

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