A JD Power study of consumer attitudes suggests that interest in hybrid electric vehicles in the USA is high, with 30 percent of new-vehicle buyers indicating that they would "definitely" consider a hybrid vehicle and another 30 percent indicating a strong consideration.

The study also says that interest is especially high among women.

The results of this consumer-based study support the sales outlook outlined in a separate JD Power and Associates hybrid vehicle forecast, in which hybrid sales are expected to increase dramatically in the next few years and approach 500,000 vehicles per year shortly after mid-decade.

The JD Power study provided answers to three core industry questions about hybrid vehicles: 1) In which vehicle segments do consumers want hybrids offered; 2) What will cause them to purchase; and 3) How much are they willing to pay?

Survey respondents overwhelmingly indicate that they want a hybrid powertrain option in the same segment as their current vehicle. For example, a hybrid SUV is the most popular first choice vehicle segment for a hybrid option among current SUV owners, while a minivan hybrid is the first choice among minivan owners. However, regardless of the vehicle they currently own, nearly all consumers surveyed selected a midsize car as their second most popular choice for a hybrid.

"A hybrid option in the high-volume midsize car segment would provide manufacturers a broad-based growth path to the mainstream market," said Thad Malesh, director of the alternative power technology practice at JD Power and Associates.

Concern over fuel prices, the high level of US dependency on foreign fuel supplies, a federal tax incentive and concern for the environment are the primary motivators behind consumer consideration to purchase a hybrid vehicle, according to the study.

Also, the number one reason for considering a hybrid is concern over high fuel prices, and a detailed analysis of fuel prices indicates that as expected, consumer interest in hybrid vehicles increases as gasoline prices rise.

Though price and costs play a critical role in the acceptance of hybrid vehicle technology, the study shows there is a greater willingness to pay for hybrid vehicles than previously believed. Consumers expect to pay more for a hybrid than they would for a traditional gasoline-engine vehicle. Some consumers, such as small car owners, are willing to pay more than other buyers. Of those who would consider a hybrid electric vehicle, nearly one-third indicate they would still buy one even if the savings from reduced fuel costs during their ownership period would be less than the extra cost of purchasing the hybrid option.

Consumers also indicated that their appetite for hybrids would increase if the federal government helped offset some of the additional costs. Consumers not only see a federal tax credit as important to their decision to purchase a hybrid, they also expect the credit to be nearly equal to the additional cost for the hybrid option over that of the gasoline-engine version.

While women tend to be substantially more interested in hybrids than men, the lack of available information and education is the main barrier for purchasing one, according to female respondents.

"Women are definitely interested in hybrid vehicles but are deferring their decision to purchase because they don't know enough about them," Malesh said. "Manufacturers should be working to better educate consumers on hybrid technology, especially among women."

On the other hand, male new-vehicle buyers surveyed also indicate a strong interest in hybrids but are concerned that these vehicles will lack strong performance.

"The lack of consumer understanding underscores the challenges automakers face in gaining acceptance of hybrid technology," Malesh said. "Many people still think hybrid vehicles are the small, expensive, limited-range electric vehicles that they saw or heard about in the 1990s. Approximately two years after the launch of the first hybrids in the United States, nearly one-half of the survey respondents still incorrectly believe a hybrid vehicle needs to be plugged in to recharge the battery pack."

In comparing consumer expectations of hybrid vehicle acceleration, fuel economy and emission levels with those of a gasoline-powered vehicle, respondents clearly show a need for more information about hybrids. Respondent comfort levels with various hybrid vehicle operating features -- such as idle-off at a stoplight, higher voltage batteries and consumer expectations regarding the length of the battery pack warranty -- highlight additional educational requirements.

Overall, the introduction of two gasoline-electric hybrid models into the U.S. market has increased awareness of hybrid technology. The Honda Insight and Toyota Prius, as well as other announced hybrids such as the Ford Escape, have fueled this awareness of hybrid technology to more than 80 percent of new-vehicle buyers surveyed. These first-in-market introductions have given Honda and Toyota the clear lead among new-vehicle buyers as the most technologically advanced manufacturers in the development of environmentally friendly vehicles.

The results of this consumer-based study support the sales outlook outlined in a separate JD Power and Associates hybrid vehicle forecast, in which hybrid sales are expected to increase dramatically in the next few years and approach 500,000 vehicles per year shortly after mid-decade.

"We expect to see as many as 20 hybrid vehicle models, including cars, trucks and SUVs, at dealerships and on the road in the next four to five years," Malesh said.