By Mary-Lynn Cesar
High gas prices tend to be good news for electric cars and hybrids. In March 2012, gas averaged $3.92 a gallon, bringing it uncomfortably close to the record $4-plus peak seen in 2008. That same month, Toyota (NYSE:TM) and General Motors (NYSE:GM) reported record sales for the Prius hybrid and Chevrolet Volt hybrid-electric car, respectively. Today, however, the nationwide average gas price for February is below $2.00 per gallon. Now that gas prices are at record lows, the argument that these eco-friendly vehicles save consumers money at the pump seems weak.
A look at last year's car sales data reveals that Americans are increasingly gravitating toward pickup trucks and SUVs, which, while improving their fuel consumption, are still less fuel-efficient than electric cars and hybrids. In 2015, car makers sold an unprecedented 17.5 million vehicles, up 5.7% from the prior year and 0.4% from the record set in 2000. According to Kelley Blue Book, more than half of all transactions comprised truck and SUV sales, driving up the average sales price to $34,428.
Several factors contributed to last year's uptick in car purchases: increased employment, low interest rates (which means better deals on auto financing) and cheap gas. Apparently, these trends haven't extended their benefits to electric and hybrid cars. Per InsideEVs, overall electric vehicle sales declined year over year between 2014 and 2015, falling 5.2% from 122,438 to 116,099. According to data from HybridCars.com, hybrid sales plummeted 14.9% from 451,702 in 2014 to 384,404 in 2015.
December was a great month for electric cars. However, as HybridCars.com points out, this is standard for the industry, as many consumers hurry to buy eco-friendly cars at the end of the year in order to qualify for tax credits. Per InsideEVs, a record 13,699 electric cars were sold that month - a 5.1% increase from a year earlier. HybridCars.com reports that Tesla's (NASDAQ:TSLA) Model S was responsible for the bulk of electric car sales in December, although the car maker doesn't release monthly sales figures.
While low gas prices have allowed Americans to return to gas-guzzling behemoths, there may still be hope for electric cars and vehicles. If gas nears $4 a gallon in the future, history suggests consumers will once again flock to the Prius, Leaf, Model S and other electrified cars.
A more concrete reason for the optimism is the EPA's greenhouse gas emission/fuel economy regulation, which stipulates that cars must meet a mileage requirement of 55.5 miles per gallon in 2025. The Model S has an impressive 265-mile range, the latest Nissan Leaf can go 107 miles on a single charge, the BMW i3 can last for 83 miles and the Prius, depending on the model, gets between 42 and 56 miles on a full tank. The popular aluminum Ford F-150 pickup truck gets a combined 20 miles per gallon. If car makers hope to meet the EPA's requirement, as Quartz argues, it's likely they'll start offering electric models of beloved SUVs and trucks.
If all this electric and hybrid talk has piqued your interest, here's how much you can expect to spend on one of these cars. Excluding Tesla, whose $75,000 Model S is clearly a luxury vehicle, electric and plug-in cars typically cost between $26,000 and $35,000 - and that's before claiming the wallet-friendly $7,500 tax credit. Furthermore, depending on where you live, you may be eligible for additional state tax credits if you decide to go electric with your next car purchase. Plug-in hybrids are also eligible for a tax credit, albeit a smaller one, and they can cost anywhere from $30,000 to $75,000.
With that in mind, below is a list of car makers who sell electric cars and/or hybrids. Each company's quarter-over-quarter sales growth is included, as well as its total electric and hybrid sales for 2015 (with the % change from 2014).
Click on the interactive chart to view data over time.
Ford Motor Co. (NYSE:F): Develops, manufactures, distributes and services vehicles and parts worldwide. Its market cap is at $48.62B, and the most recent closing price at $11.87.
Sales growth quarter over quarter is at 9.20%.
In 2015, Ford's electric car sales from its Focus, Fusion and C-Max Energi models totaled 18,923, down 13.8% from 21,947 in 2014.
In 2015, Ford's hybrid car sales from its Fusion, C-Max and Lincoln MKZ hybrid models totaled 47,261, down 26.8% from 64,600 in 2014.
Fiat Chrysler Automobile (NYSE:FCAU): Designs, engineers, manufactures, distributes and sells vehicles and components. Its market cap is at $8.46B, and the most recent closing price at $6.30.
Sales growth quarter over quarter is at 9.20%.
In 2015, Fiat Chrysler's electric car sales from its Fiat 500e model totaled 6,194, up 20.7% from 5,132 in 2014.
General Motors Company: Operates as a global automaker. Its market cap is at $45.11B, and the most recent closing price at $28.58.
Sales growth quarter over quarter is at 0.00%.
In 2015, General Motors's electric car sales from its Chevrolet Volt and Spark EV models totaled 18,022, down 9.7% from 19,950 in 2014.
In 2015, GM's hybrid car sales from its Buick Lacrosse, Buick Regal and Chevy Impala hybrid models totaled 4,585, down 37.6% from 7,353 in 2014.
Toyota Motor Corporation: Engages in the design, manufacture, assembly and sale of passenger cars, minivans and commercial vehicles. Its market cap is at $166.32B, with the most recent closing price at $108.21.
Sales growth quarter over quarter is at 8.40%.
In 2015, Toyota's electric car sales from Prius PHV model totaled 4,191, down 71% from 14,448 in 2014 (Toyota had two models then: the Prius PHV and Rav 4 EV).
In 2015, Toyota's hybrid car sales from its Prius, Prius C, Prius V, Camry, Lexus NX Hybrid, Avalon Hybrid and Highlander models, among others, totaled 265,039 down 10.7% from 296,755 in 2014.
Tesla Motors Inc.: Designs, develops, manufactures and sells electric vehicles and advanced electric vehicle powertrain components. Its market cap is at $21.67B, and the most recent closing price at $155.71.
Sales growth quarter over quarter is at 26.90%.
In 2015, Tesla's electric car sales from its Model S totaled 25,202, up 51% from 16,689 in 2014.
(Quarterly sales data sourced from Zacks Investment Research. Electric car sales data sourced from InsideEVs.com. Hybrid car sales data sourced from U.S. Department of Energy Alternative Fuel Data Center. All other data sourced from FINVIZ.)