- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 15, 2004

The gas-electric hybrid vehicles that automakers touted as the cars of the future only a few years ago are quickly joining the mainstream of American automobiles.

Consumers are making the fuel-efficient vehicles one of the fastest-growing segments of the automobile industry.

“If we had them in stock, we could sell many, many of them because of current fuel costs,” Harold Redden, general manager of Fitzgerald Auto Mall in Gaithersburg said about the Toyota Prius, the most popular hybrid car on the market.

Initial sales of hybrids were so encouraging that manufacturers are increasing production this year.

Americans bought 47,525 fuel-efficient hybrids last year, a number that’s expected to top 100,000 this year, according to the consumer research firm J.D. Power & Associates.

Adding to the momentum are average gasoline prices this week of almost $2 per gallon and Middle East political tensions that show few signs of easing.

Unlike traditional automobiles, the hybrids include both rechargeable batteries and a gasoline engine. Each power system contributes to run the vehicles.

At slow speeds, the vehicles operate on battery power. At higher speeds, the combustion engine kicks in to provide more speed. Friction from braking helps to recharge the batteries.

As a result, although hybrids cost more to buy, motorists can save at the gas pump.

So far, only Toyota and Honda sell hybrids for the mass market.

Detroit this morning was to display its first American-made competitor in a ceremony at the Department of Interior. Ford Motor Co.’s chief executive officer was to donate 12 hybrid sport utility vehicles to the National Park Foundation.

Ford says the 2005 Ford Escape hybrid SUVs can travel 576 miles in city driving on one tank of gas. They are scheduled to go on sale in the fall.

The first hybrid vehicles sold in 2000 often were intended as a statement of style by motorists rather than a well-planned investment, according to automakers.

“I think the earliest consumers have been those that have been interested in the environmental benefits,” said Joanne Krell, General Motors spokeswoman.

Others wanted to be the first to buy cutting-edge technology, she said.

Now dealers say improvements in price and quality are making hybrids more popular than traditional autos.

“I have 140 unfilled orders,” said Mike Baird, sales manager at Jack Taylor’s Alexandria Toyota. “Almost every dealer in town has the same amount.”

However, J.D. Power & Associates suggests a wait-and-see attitude before concluding that hybrids will replace traditional gasoline engines.

“It is too early to tell,” said Walter McManus, forecasting and analytics director for J.D. Power & Associates. “Awareness appears to be increasing, but demand will depend on the expected long-run price of fuel, changing needs for vehicle performance and environmental attitudes.”

In addition, some consumer advocates warn that claims of fuel savings from hybrids often are inflated.

“We have found that consumers tend not to get some of the mileages the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] says they’re going to get,” said Doug Love, spokesman for Consumer Reports magazine. “The real-world figures tend to be a bit different.”

The Prius is advertised to get 55 miles per gallon, but engineers who test products for Consumer Reports say the actual figure might be 44 miles per gallon in a combination of city and highway driving.

Nevertheless, the performance is superior to traditional cars of the same size, which typically get slightly better than 30 miles per gallon.

The Prius — the fastest-selling hybrid — has a base price of $20,295. Options can increase the price to around $26,000.

When it entered the market in 2000, sales were slow amid complaints about a sluggish engine and the cramped interior.

Sales jumped when the 2004 model entered the market.

“Nationwide, we have about 22,000 customers who are waiting to take delivery of a new Toyota Prius,” Miss Knight said.

General Motors and DaimlerChrysler plan to start selling hybrid vehicles as options on some of their most popular vehicles as soon as this summer.

Chrysler Group will offer the option on its Dodge Ram pickup. General Motors Corp. will make hybrid versions of its Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra trucks.

This fall, Honda plans to introduce a hybrid version of the Accord, one of America’s top-selling vehicles. It already offers a hybrid in its Civic line.

that promises 45 to 51 miles per gallon.

In some cities, automobile dealers have been profiting from the demand by tacking on markups as high as $5,000 onto the manufacturer’s list price.

Consumers get part of their money back from a tax break. The federal government allows a $1,500 deduction this year for first-time purchases of hybrids. The tax break is scheduled to be phased out in 2006.

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