- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 15, 2002

Americans have never been enamored of electric cars; buyers have been turned off by high prices and performance limitations.
Some people, however, think the new Honda Civic Hybrid could appeal to a larger number of Americans.
While not the first car model to be equipped with a gasoline-electric power system, the Civic Hybrid is the first to be sold as a wildly popular model: the Honda Civic.
Tom and Fiorella Williams put in an order for a Civic Hybrid sight unseen, without so much as a test drive.
They bought the car, which runs on both gasoline and electricity, because it uses less gas and spews less pollution than conventional cars, which run solely on gas. But they wouldn't have bought it if it didn't handle and look like the Civic they previously owned.
The Williamses were willing to pay an extra $2,500 or so for the car because they are concerned about the environment. They also wanted better gas mileage, and the Hybrid gets 600 miles to a tankful.
"We fell in love with the car when it was introduced last fall," Tom Williams said. "We got the second one the dealer sold."
Americans have been hearing about electric cars for years, and the image is etched in our brains: pipsqueaks with clunky batteries that have to be plugged in every few hundred miles.
The first electric cars manufactured for the masses turned out to be gas-electric hybrids, and they are far from the stereotype.
Honda introduced its two-seat Insight model in December 1999, and the four-door Toyota Prius went to market a few months later. But they were built exclusively as hybrids, and Americans have bought only 35,000 or so of them. That's a tiny blip compared with the more than 16 million cars sold in the United States each year.
That doesn't mean Americans don't like the idea of hybrid cars. A recent survey by J.D. Power and Associates, a market-research firm based in Agoura Hills, Calif., found that 60 percent of 5,200 new-car buyers said they would consider buying a hybrid.
If, that is, the technology were available in the car they already drive, said Thad Malesh, director of J.D. Power's alternative-power technologies.
The Civic Hybrid might be the car that provides a breakthrough in hybrid-car manufacturing, he said. It's larger than the initial offerings from Honda and Toyota, and the Civic is already the nation's best-selling compact car, with more than 330,000 bought last year.
The Hybrid is essentially a Honda Civic EX, minus the moon roof, and it looks and runs almost like a standard Civic, except that it gets 46 to 51 miles per gallon instead of 31 to 38 miles per gallon.
J.D. Power is forecasting that Americans will be buying half a million gas-electric hybrids annually from all makers in four or five years.
That would account for roughly 3 percent of overall sales.
Mr. Malesh also expects there to be as many as 20 different hybrid vehicle models on the road by 2007.
"This is the wave of the future," Mr. Malesh said. "Virtually all the industry is going to go this way."
Nonetheless, there's no guarantee that fickle American car buyers will want them, said Csaba Csere, editor in chief of Car and Driver magazine.
"There's no evidence that Americans in large numbers care about fuel economy," he said.
"They always answer 'yes' on surveys but then buy SUVs. It's like asking people if they want to lose weight, and they say 'yes' but then go out and buy chicken-fried steak and fries."
Still, Mr. Csere expects hybrid sales to increase when car companies introduce sport utility vehicles and pickup truck hybrids. Ford Motor Co. plans to introduce a hybrid version of its Escape next year that gets 40 miles per gallon, and Chevrolet is planning a hybrid pickup truck in the next couple of years, he said.
For now, Honda is projecting Civic Hybrid sales of 2,000 a month for the first year. Even with that small production, Honda expects to make a profit on the cars, said John Watts, spokesman for American Honda Motor Co. in New York.
Early sales look promising.
The Hybrid came to market in early April, and Maine Mall Motors in South Portland, where the Williamses bought their Hybrid, already has a backlog of orders.
So do other dealers, Mr. Watts said.
"There's a lot of interest in these cars," he said.

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