Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Are hybrids better than EVs?

Hybrids are changing India's automotive industry for the better. Though expensive compared to EVs, they help improve fuel efficiency, reduce emissions, and cut oil imports

Manu Balachandran
Published: Jun 28, 2024 11:52:54 AM IST
Updated: Jul 2, 2024 01:02:52 PM IST

A hybrid vehicle such as the Maruti Suzuki Invicto uses two or more power sources, mostly an internal combustion engine and an electric motor
Image: Anis Shaikh / OverdriveA hybrid vehicle such as the Maruti Suzuki Invicto uses two or more power sources, mostly an internal combustion engine and an electric motor Image: Anis Shaikh / Overdrive

For a few years now, the global automotive world has been obsessed with electric vehicles (EVs).

Much of that, of course, was led by the phenomenal growth of Tesla over the past decade, pushed harder by its Chinese compatriots such as BYD, leaving legacy automakers such as Mercedes and Volkswagen to chase electric ambitions as the world looks towards moving away from fossil fuels. That’s also why, in the last few years, automakers have made a beeline to shift to an all-electric plan, with many envisaging the transition as early as 2030.

Back home, the likes of Tata Motors and Mahindra are betting heavily on EVs, with both automakers lining up more than 10 electric models in the next five years. However, even as the transition seemed fast-paced, there were a few other automakers, particularly the Japanese, who held back, focusing instead on alternative fuels at a time when range anxiety and charging infrastructure continue to cause concern for EVs.

Today, their gamble seems to be paying off. Over the last few months, India’s automobile landscape has witnessed some churn, with hybrid vehicles from Maruti Suzuki and Toyota taking on EV sales, which saw wide traction during Covid-19. According to data from the government’s Vaahan dashboard, EV sales between April and June 11 stood at 15,000 vehicles, averaging a little over 7,000 a month. Mild hybrid and strong hybrid vehicles, however, stood at 59,814 units, averaging nearly 30,000 a month.

A hybrid vehicle such as the Maruti Suzuki Grand Vitara or Toyota Hycross basically uses two or more power sources, mostly an internal combustion engine (ICE) and an electric motor. The move helps in improving fuel efficiency and reducing emissions by using the electric motor while going at low speeds; the vehicle shifts to engine mode to power the vehicle at higher speeds and recharges the battery. This technology is often referred to as strong hybrids. According to Vaahan, strong hybrid sales stood at 7,183 units between April and June 11.

There are also two more types of hybrid technology, a mild hybrid and a plug-in. In the former, the electric motor and ICE work together, and the electric motor pushes to meet the energy requirements of smaller tasks such as ignition or providing torque boost. But in most cases, mileage matches that of petrol vehicles. In a plug-in ecosystem, the batteries can be charged separately, but they come with a limited range. Typically, in a plug-in hybrid, the vehicle runs on electric power until the battery is drained before the car switches over to use fuel.

“In a strong hybrid EV, it is the computer that optimises both the drive trains, the ICE, and the battery motor combination and there is no option given to the driver to run in pure ICE mode,” says Rahul Bharti, executive officer for corporate affairs at Maruti Suzuki. “And the technology is so powerful that it delivers a strong increase in energy efficiency.”

A hybrid vehicle such as the Maruti Suzuki Invicto uses two or more power sources, mostly an internal combustion engine and an electric motor
Image: Anis Shaikh / Overdrive

But hybrids are also a relatively expensive affair, with strong starting at about ₹17 lakh; EVs start at ₹8 lakh. “Hybrids are a powerful way to cut oil imports, generate energy efficiency, and reduce CO2 immediately without the pressure of range anxiety or lack of charging infrastructure. It gives you immediate returns,” adds Bharti.

“The adoption of hybrid cars in India is showing a promising upward trend,” says Harshvardhan Sharma, head of auto retail practice at Nomura Research Institute. “This is driven by a combination of government policies, rising fuel prices, and increasing consumer awareness of environmental sustainability. Hybrid vehicles, which offer the benefits of both ICE and electric motors, provide a practical solution for Indian consumers.”

With range anxiety and charging infrastructure on the slow lane, the uptick is only expected to continue as automakers ramp up production and introduce more models. According to data from the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers (Siam), hybrid car sales in India have grown by over 30 percent in the past year alone, indicating a robust market response.

Also read: Electric vehicles are taking off steadily. How can the Budget help?


A hybrid vehicle such as the Maruti Suzuki Invicto uses two or more power sources, mostly an internal combustion engine and an electric motor
Image: Anis Shaikh / OverdriveJapanese car makers have focussed on hybrids, with Toyota launching the Urban Cruiser Hyryder Hybrid in July 2022, followed by the Innova HyCross hybrid in November 2022 Image: Anis Shaikh / Overdrive

Here to Stay

It’s not just India where sales of hybrid vehicles have been on an upswing. Globally, in the US and Europe too, they have begun to sell at a faster rate than EVs. Hybrid sales grew five times faster than EV sales in February in the US, according to Morgan Stanley.

“Hybrids provide a crucial advantage in the current scenario where EV adoption faces challenges such as high initial costs, limited charging infrastructure and range anxiety,” adds Sharma. “Hybrids, with their dual power sources, mitigate these concerns by offering extended range and flexibility. They do not rely solely on charging stations and can leverage the existing fuel infrastructure. Moreover, hybrids generally have a lower total cost of ownership compared to pure EVs, making them an attractive option for a broader segment of consumers. This balance makes hybrids a practical and appealing alternative during the transition to fully EVs.”

“We believe that carbon is the real enemy and all xEVs [all electrified technologies including electrified vehicles] which includes battery EVs, plug-in hybrid EVs, strong hybrid EVs [SHEV], and fuel cell EVs as well as alternative fuel-based technologies are important to meet the carbon neutrality goals,” says Vikram Gulati, country head and executive vice president, Toyota Kirloskar Motor. “Hybrids and EVs are complementary technologies, and the increased offtake of hybrids is only going to help in faster localisation and mass manufacturing of EV powertrain parts, which are common, thus also helping to increase EV offtake.”

Toyota reckons that more than 95 percent of the market is still based on conventional ICE technologies and a rapid offtake of all green technologies is needed to achieve the national goals of reducing dependence on fossil fuels and decarbonisation. “Currently, as is the case globally, we are seeing good demand for SHEV as they offer convenience, and performance coupled with high fuel efficiency and being environmentally friendly,” Gulati adds. 

A hybrid vehicle such as the Maruti Suzuki Invicto uses two or more power sources, mostly an internal combustion engine and an electric motor
Image: Anis Shaikh / Overdrive

In July 2022, Toyota launched the Urban Cruiser Hyryder Hybrid in the B-SUV segment followed by the Innova HyCross hybrid in November 2022. “The debate is not between EV and strong hybrid,” adds Bharti of Maruti Suzuki. “Both are excellent technologies. Both need to be encouraged. The debate is between strong hybrids and ICEs. I cannot imagine a situation, and nobody can justify why ICEs should be preferred over strong hybrids.”

The Narendra Modi government is now considering a proposal to reduce GST on hybrid vehicles to 5 percent and to 12 percent for flex engines, as it looks to increase the usage of alternative fuels in its attempt to cut down on fossil fuels. Currently, hybrid vehicles have a tax of 43 percent, including 28 percent GST and an additional cess, while EVs have a 5 percent tax; ICE vehicles have a 48 percent tax. In all, the government wants to bring down its import bill, in which fossil fuels are a significant contributor.

The government had earlier announced an ambitious target to push for 30 percent of Indian vehicles sold by 2030 to be electric. Among others, global automaker GM had in 2021 said the company would switch to an all-electric fleet by 2035, while Ford had announced plans to go all-electric in Europe by 2030. By 2030, about 40 to 45 percent of all two-wheelers and 15 to 20 percent of all four-wheelers (passenger vehicles) sold in India will be electric, according to a report by Bain & Co. Still, affordability remains a key constraint when it comes to mass adoption of EVs, and for that matter even hybrid, in a market that’s well-known for being price sensitive.

A hybrid vehicle such as the Maruti Suzuki Invicto uses two or more power sources, mostly an internal combustion engine and an electric motor
Image: Anis Shaikh / Overdrive

“India is rapidly shifting towards E20 fuel which, according to government estimates, is likely to save the country approximately ₹50,000 crore annually in fossil fuel imports and reduce carbon emissions by 10 million metric tonnes,” adds Gulati of Toyota. “Given the extensive availability of ethanol and compressed biogas in India, we believe that alternative fuel technologies, such as flex-fuel vehicles and electrified flex-fuel vehicles, will be essential.”
 
Even as Maruti Suzuki and Toyota push hybrid technology, the growing demand could mean that other automakers are likely to enter the hybrid market as the demand grows, although Tata Motors has made it clear that it has no such plans. “As the technology becomes more mainstream, we can expect a more diverse range of hybrid models from various manufacturers, enhancing consumer choice and accelerating adoption,” adds Sharma of Nomura. “In the short term, EV sales in India are expected to grow steadily, but may not meet the most optimistic forecasts due to infrastructural and economic challenges.”

All that means is that the churn in the Indian automotive world is only getting started, and electric doesn’t seem to be the only sustainable solution for automakers. “Considering the vast market size—4.2 million cars were sold last year—and the rapidly growing demand, all these technologies will be necessary to meet future needs,” adds Gulati.

(This story appears in the 28 June, 2024 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)