Hybrids are the answer for many, until state subsidies end
Drivers can feel they are helping the environment without having to worry about the battery running out.
Sales of hybrid and plug-in hybrid vehicles rose 21.8 percent in 2021, according to Seoul-based market tracker CarIsYou, with 186,245 delivered.
Only 100,402 pure EVs were sold that year.
Sales of hybrids and plug-in hybrid imports rose by 100 percent in Korea last year, with 93,081 units delivered.
Hybrid vehicles have been around for some time in Korea but didn't get much attention until recently, as domestic carmakers haven't had competitive models to offer.
The first hybrid model in Korea was the Lexus RX400h SUV, introduced in 2006. Japan's Lexus, Toyota and Honda pioneered and dominated Korea's hybrid car market in the early days. It was three years later, in 2009, that Hyundai Motor hurriedly introduced its first hybrid — the Avante Hybrid — in Korea.
The model was not all that popular as it had an LPG engine, which was not popular with consumers. In 2011, Hyundai Motor released a gasoline engine-based hybrid version of the Sonata midsize sedan to Korean customers.
"With an increasing emphasis on environment-friendly vehicles and more regulation on and to be added for diesel cars, people are now considering emission levels when purchasing new cars," said Lee Ho-geun, automotive engineering professor, Daeduk University.
"While pure EVs are still expensive and an unreliable option for many, hybrid cars meet environmental standards and are convenient, helping the powertrain gain new momentum recently."
While pure EVs are generating a buzz these days, they are a challenge for many consumers due to their limited range — at an average of 400 kilometers — and the lack of charging infrastructure.
Hybrids are propelled both by a gasoline internal combustion engine and an electric motor powered by a battery.
While it depends solely on the internal combustion engine at low speeds, the electric motor kicks in at higher speeds.
Unlike pure EVs, charging is not a concern as a regenerative braking system recharges the batteries as the car is slowed. Fuel efficiency is increased, making hybrids an economical choice.
Kia's Niro Hybrid SUV gets 20.8 kilometers per liter (km/l), the highest for any SUV in Korea. Hyundai Motor's Grandeur Hybrid is rated at 16.2 km/l, while the gasoline version gets 11.9 km/l.
Hyundai Motor started selling the Sonata Hybrid in 2011. In 2019, Hyundai Motor introduced its first hybrid SUV model, the Kona Hybrid.
About 60 percent of Hyundai Motor's diesel and gasoline cars have a hybrid version.
Is it a passing fancy?
The future of hybrids in Korea is in doubt.
Korea's Ministry of Environment recently announced that hybrid cars will no longer be considered low-emission vehicles, which are eligible to various tax benefits.
Only pure EVs and hydrogen cars will be included in the category, the ministry said.
Hybrid cars receive about 1 million won in subsidies. They were also eligible for 50 percent cuts in public parking fees and tolls.
Those benefits are likely to be suspended from 2023.
The re-categorization could affect hybrid rollout schedules.
Carmakers are obliged to sell certain number of low-emission vehicles per year to contribute to the country's push towards emissions-free mobility. They are charged a penalty if they fail to meet the quota.
If hybrid car sales stop being counted as low-emission vehicles, carmakers are going to lose a major motivation to release new hybrid models to the market.
"The market grows with the launch of competitive models," Professor Lee said. "If the carmakers lose interest in competitive hybrid models, the segment will soon be neglected."
If the industry implements life cycle assessment (LCA) for measuring carbon dioxide emissions of a vehicle, hybrids become as environmentally friendly as pure EVs.
LCA measures carbon dioxide emitted during the entire life cycle of a vehicle, from the manufacturing to the scrapping; whereas the current method only counts emissions from the tailpipe.
Under the LCA method, pure EVs aren't as environmentally friendly as expected due to the emissions caused by making and discarding the lithium-ion batteries.
According to Korea Automotive Technology Institute (Katech), pure EVs with 80 kilowatt-hour batteries emit a maximum up of 28.2 tons of carbon dioxide during a 10-year lifecycle while hybrid cars emit 27.5 tons.
"According to International Energy Association analysis, a pure EV with a high voltage battery emits a similar amount of CO2 compared to a hybrid car," said Lee Ho, a director at Katech's strategic research planning division.
"If the LCA method is implemented and other pollutant measurements are factored in, since batteries are harmful to environment in many aspects, hybrid cars can be considered even more environmentally friendly than pure EVs."
The European Union has been mulling whether to utilize the LCA method since 2019 and will conclude whether it can be applied to all EU member states by 2023.
China is currently researching the method and is considering implementing the LCA method after 2025, according to Katech.
BY JIN EUN-SOO [email@example.com]