NEW YORK >> When Toyota aired a Super Bowl television ad featuring a surprisingly quick Prius gas-electric hybrid eluding police, it marked a turning point for the auto industry.
For years, automakers pushed fuel efficiency to sell hybrid and electric vehicles. Now, in an era of cheap gasoline, the message is: These cars are faster and quieter than their gas-powered counterparts. And, yes, you still save on fuel.
"They've graduated out of the class of something that's a bit of an oddity to drive," says Mike O'Brien, vice president of product planning for Hyundai. "It's all about making these cars better."
Until now, hybrids and electrics have largely appealed to the environmentally-conscious crowd. The vehicles cost thousands of dollars extra, and although drivers eventually recouped their money in fuel savings, the vehicles lacked the power and handling of gas-powered rivals. Electrics also suffered from driver concern that the battery could run out of juice on a trip.
Now, the tide is slowly turning. General Motors and Tesla will bring electric vehicles to market next year priced around $30,000, including a $7,500 federal tax credit. Battery range has improved significantly, experts expect gasoline prices to eventually climb higher, and the advent of autonomous vehicles favors motors powered by electricity over gas.
At the New York International Auto Show on Wednesday, Hyundai and Toyota showed off new electric and hybrid vehicles. Hyundai unveiled battery, gas-electric hybrid and plug-in versions of a new car called the Ioniq, while Toyota showed the plug-in Prius Prime, which can go 22 miles on electricity before the gas-electric power system kicks in. The electric range is double the old version.
The Prius hybrid, powered by gas and electric motors, started the alternative fuel movement in the U.S. in 2000. Toyota deliberately made it look different than other cars, knowing that buyers wanted to make a statement about being environmentally friendly. Other companies set their green cars apart as well.
Even though sales grew as manufacturers added models, they never really caught on, partly because of the improved fuel economy of gas-powered vehicles. At their peak in 2013, with gas averaging $3.50 per gallon, Americans bought only 341,000 hybrids and electrics, about 2.2 percent of total U.S. car sales, according to Kelley Blue Book.
Companies spent millions developing the cars, taking losses to meet government fuel economy standards that gradually increase and require the new-car fleet to average 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025.
As gas prices fell below $2 per gallon, sales of hybrids and electrics dropped further. Last year, automakers had 16 hybrid and electric models on sale, but sales sank to just over 274,000.
All of this makes for a bad environment to roll out more hybrids and electrics. But automakers will press on, now selling them on style and acceleration.