Toyota Still Leads the Hybrid Race

 |  Includes: F, HMC, HYMLF, TM
by: Juan Carlos Zuleta

In a previous article, I announced the imminent arrival to the U.S. market of Hyundai´s (OTC:HYMLF) first conventional hybrid electric vehicle (HEV) equipped with lithium-ion batteries: The Sonata. The now famous sedan with 209 hp and an efficiency of 21 km per liter is the latest contribution of the Korean auto giant to the lithium race.

Its introduction into the largest car market in the world could not have been more auspicious. According to data provided by hybridcars, in June the Hyundai Sonata ranked second in sales of hybrid cars in the U.S., after the Toyota (NYSE:TM) Prius. In fact, 1,422 Sonata hybrids were sold last month, compared to 4,340 Priuses. In addition, with 1,021 vehicles commercialized, the Honda (NYSE:HMC) Insight occupied third place, followed by the Ford (NYSE:F) Fusion yielding a sale of 969 vehicles and the Honda CR-Z with 966 cars. The Ford Escape and Lincoln MKZ were next with 826 and 483 vehicles, respectively. The list of best-selling HEVs (considering only those models that had more than 400 sales) in June 2011 is closed by the Toyota Camry with 449, the Honda Civic with 418 and the Toyota Lexus RX450h with 413.

The above data allow me to make the following comments. First, if we add up the amounts of the different models of each brand, it is clear that Toyota is still the "king of hybrids” with 5,202 vehicles sold in June, followed by Hondawith a total of 2,405 cars, or rather less than half of Toyota´s. Ford comes next, with a total of 2,278 conventional HEVs, followed by Hyundai with a total of 1,422 hybrid cars.

Second, nickel remains predominant over lithium in terms of batteries used by the various hybrids on the market. Indeed, out of a total of 11,307 hybrids sold last month, only 1,840 (16.27%) would be using lithium batteries. This last figure is obtained from the sum of the vehicles sold by Hyundai in June plus 418 new Honda Civics that also utilize the same energy storage technology since April 20. The number becomes almost symbolic, leaving behind the assumption of the U.S. Department of Energy in its "critical materials strategypublished in December 2010 that it was rather difficult to think of hybrids with lithium-ion batteries.

Moreover, it is surprising that many more Sonata hybrids than Insight, CR-Z, and Civic of Honda (separately) had been sold. Note that, in general, the latter vehicles have already been several years in the market. Also recall that Honda was the first car manufacturer to introduce hybrid vehicles to the U.S. market, but has never really been able to challenge Toyota in the race of hybrids. It is therefore quite interesting that many more Sonata hybrids than Camry hybrids were sold, considering that the latter vehicles are the only ones similar and comparable to Sonata hybrids.

The emerging leadership of Hyundai in hybrid cars could contribute to opening other business spaces in the new industry of electric vehicles. As I mentioned in another article, Sonata´s basic technological platform would have been designed to be easily converted into a plug-in version only through the use of larger lithium ion batteries. In summary, all the above conmments only visualize a very optimistic outlook for Hyundai in the short and medium terms.

Third, it all seems to suggest that the march towards lithium will be intensified in the remainder of the year and during the next, Toyota possibly being one of its main protagonists. This is essentially due to two factors identified in a previous article on Toyota's business strategy, namely restrictions on the production of nickel metal hydride (NiMH) for problems related to licensing and key patents now held by the joint venture formed by Samsung (OTC:SSNLF) and Bosch in South Korea and Germany, respectively, two potential rivals of Panasonic (PC), Toyota's partner in the production of batteries for the Prius, and the problems Toyota has started to face in obtaining rare earths (mostly lanthanum and neodymium, which Toyota has been importing from China) for both NiMH batteries and motors with permanent magnets that the Prius utilizes.

Nevertheless, both the costly recalls and the earthquake-tsunami seem to have left a deep imprint on Toyota as a cause of at least two months of delay (until October this year) in the launch of the Prius v with Li-ion batteries in its European and Japanese versions and, possibly, the loss of its leadership in the global automotive market in 2011.

In these circumstances, if Hyundai does displace Toyota in total sales until the end of the year to become the third largest automaker in the world, after General Motors (NYSE:GM) and Volkswagen (OTCPK:VLKAY), it will not only most likely win the race of hybrids, but it will also become in the next few years the main driver of the transition to electric propulsion in the global automotive industry.

Lastly, the trends described above are reflected in the stock exchange market, where Hyundaiis seen to have clearly outperformed its main competitors in the hybrid car race since the beginning of 2011.

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Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.