- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 1, 2003

Francine Rosenberger is not a tree hugger. The 35-year-old securities lawyer does not empathize with rants against gas-guzzling vehicles and has no moral opposition to parking a second sport utility vehicle in her driveway.
Yet there she was at the Koons Toyota dealership on a recent Friday peeking under the hood of a Prius, sizing up the gas-electric car designed for high fuel-efficiency and low emissions.
What prompted Mrs. Rosenberger to shop around for an eco-friendly car? A state law that permits hybrid owners to drive solo in high-occupancy-vehicle lanes during rush hour.
"That saves me time, which is worth more than anything," said Mrs. Rosenberger, an Arlington mother of two infants whose eight-mile commute can take 45 minutes. "The gas mileage is just a bonus."
Lyle Brown of Spotsylvania County, Va., who totaled his first Prius and bought another, says that breezing past rush-hour traffic jams in the HOV lane is worth the extra money hybrids cost. Mr. Brown, a 43-year-old Naval Reserve commander, can now make it to work in less than an hour, about a half-hour faster than when he had to car pool to qualify for HOV access.
Salesmen at Koons Toyota and rival Rosenthal Honda say pragmatism regularly trumps idealism among buyers of gas-electric cars, and they should know: Koons and Rosenthal lead the nation in sales of hybrids to consumers.
Meanwhile, as automakers try to figure out how to give hybrids mainstream appeal, marketing gurus suggest paying more attention to the needs of people like Mrs. Rosenberger, the soccer moms of tomorrow.
Hybrids are powered by a gasoline engine and an electric motor attached to a battery. The electric motor kicks in at low speeds in the Prius and during acceleration in Honda's Civic Hybrid. The battery recharges when the engine is running and when the driver steps on the brakes. Both cars cost a few thousand dollars more than comparable conventional models, but they get more than 45 miles per gallon.
Prius salesman Dan Scanlan, "Mr. Hybrid" to his co-workers at Koons Toyota, likes to say that gas-electric vehicles represent "the beginning of the end for OPEC," an allusion to the argument that hybrids help reduce the country's dependence on foreign oil from the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries.
But his sales pitch is otherwise devoid of political commentary, focused instead on gee-whiz features, such as how the gas-powered engine shuts down when the car comes to a stop.
If hybrids are to ever gain wider acceptance they made up less than 1 percent of car sales last year automakers will have "to make these cars practical for families with kids," said Jon Berry, senior research director at New York market research firm Roper ASW and co-author of "The Influentials," a book about trend-setting consumers.
That means putting gas-electric engines into larger vehicles, bringing down the cost and improving the somewhat sluggish performance goals the major automakers are working on. Honda learned some of these lessons last year when it introduced the four-door Civic Hybrid, which quickly outsold its original hybrid, the two-door Insight, even though the Insight runs about 20 miles farther on each gallon of gas.
If Virginia consumers are any barometer, a bill in Congress that seeks to give passengerless hybrids access to HOV lanes nationwide could further boost interest around major metropolitan areas.
Hybrid owners can also take a one-time $2,000 federal tax deduction. That law is set to expire in 2004, although industry officials expect Congress to grant at least a two-year extension. A few states offer separate incentives for hybrid buyers, including tax credits and exemptions from emission-control inspections.
For now, hybrids are still on the fringe, a transportation alternative popular with environmentalists, technology buffs and image-conscious movie stars. About one-third of hybrids are bought in California, automakers say.

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