Hybrids entering local market

Hybrid car makers will soon enter the market here but dealers warn the public is unlikely to switch from their beloved gas guzzlers.

Visitors gather around a BMW X6 concept sports utility coupe on the opening day of the 62nd International Motor Show (IAA) in Frankfurt 13 September 2007. AFP PHOTO JOHN MACDOUGALL
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DUBAI // Eco friendly cars have received scant interest from motorists in the country up to now, but car manufacturers will soon try a few hybrids on the local market, despite dealers saying they will be a hard sell in the region. "I have not received a single inquiry," said Maqsood Ahmed, a salesman at Al Habtoor Motors in Dubai.

BMW will become the first car manufacturer to offer a hybrid vehicle in the UAE when it launches the hybrid version of the X6 sports activity coupe next year. Honda also has plans to introduce combined electric and petrol-driven vehicles to the Emirates. But in the showrooms, sales executives said demand for hybrids was far from certain because fuel in the region was heavily subsided. Ankur Dhingra, a salesman at Al Futtaim Motors, the distributor of Toyota cars in Dubai, said he had received "hardly any inquiries" about hybrids. The Toyota Prius was the world's best-selling hybrid, but, said Mr Dhingra, it had not sold any units in Dubai.

"The Prius is not for the UAE market. If it comes, I suppose all variants of the car will come here," he said. However, the UAE, which has one of the world's highest carbon footprints, has begun taking steps to creating a more environmentally friendly environment. BMW is, therefore, the first car maker off the mark. According to Phil Horton, the managing director of BMW Middle East, "fuel efficiency and carbon emissions have been a hot topic globally and more recently in the GCC".

The Japanese car giant Honda, which sells hybrid cars in markets including the US, Europe and Japan, said it too would "eventually" introduce hybrids to local showrooms. "Plans are under way to review the market here ... I am sure we will see Honda hybrid cars on the roads of the UAE before too long," a company spokesman said. Toyota has 10 hybrid Camrys testing with the Dubai Road and Transport Authority (RTA) in a pilot programme that could see them added to the emirate's taxi fleet in the near future.

However Nissan, which will globally launch a fully electric car by 2012, including in the UAE market, believes that zero-emission cars are the most viable and sustainable solution, and has no plans to introduce its Altima Hybrid to the GCC. "Even in a large market like the USA, hybrid cars are pricier than their petrol equivalents and there is still no established resale market for Hybrids yet," a company spokesman said. "Demand for hybrid cars by any car maker has not overtaken petrol cars."

However, other manufacturers are cautiously optimistic that fuel-saving vehicles will be well-received here. "The Middle East is not there yet, but hybrid cars have a strong future here," said James Crichton, the director of sales and marketing at BMW Middle East. "The RTA is already making a statement [by testing hybrids as taxis]. We are expecting a shift to hybrid cars sooner than ­anticipated."

According to Mr Crichton, the region is under pressure to reduce its carbon footprint and introduce hybrid vehicles to the public transport network and the police force. "Take the example of green buildings legislation. It happened in a matter of months because things change here very fast," he said. BMW also plans to introduce three other fuel efficient models in the region by end of this year; the new Mini "John Cooper Works", the BMW 3 series and the fifth generation 7 series.

According to Mr Horton, all BMW petrol or diesel models released this year were engineered with new technology to help to reduce carbon emissions and increase fuel efficiency. "As of August this year, the number of vehicles fitted with BMW's EfficientDynamics will exceed one million worldwide," he said. BMW already has a 100 zero-­emission liquid hydrogen-powered fleet called the Hydrogen 7, currently used by politicians and celebrities in the US and Europe.

Mr Horton said this technology would reach consumers only when oil companies made liquid hydrogen as widely available as petrol or diesel. Diesel, at about Dh19, is more than twice the price of petrol in ­Dubai. @Email:skhan@thenational.ae