- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 2, 2006

The recent spike in gasoline costs is translating into record sales of hybrid vehicles.

“I can’t keep the cars,” Al Toosi, sales manager at Darcars Toyota of Silver Spring, said of the dealership’s Prius and Highlander models. “Anything touching the ground here is gone.”

Fuel-efficient hybrids are selling out at Washington-area dealerships as manufacturers struggle to keep pace with demand. Ford Motor Co., the country’s second-largest automaker, said yesterday that U.S. sales of its Escape Hybrid and Mercury Mariner Hybrid surged 75 percent in April from March. Toyota Motor Sales USA Inc. said demand for the Prius continues to outpace the company’s ability to make them.

“We’re going all over, bringing them in from dealers in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and so on,” said Tony Nardelli, general sales manager of Ted Britt Ford in Fairfax. Mr. Nardelli said the dealership sold 11 Ford Escape Hybrids on one recent Saturday.

“I wouldn’t call it a spike. I think I’d call it a landslide,” he said.

By the time additional hybrid vehicles arrive at some dealerships, they already have been purchased.

“If they get dropped off at 11 or 12 at night, they’re gone at 10 o’clock in the morning,” said Stan Fry, a sales representative at Honda of Tysons Corner, where the Civic Hybrid is a best-seller.

For the most part, local dealers attribute the rush for hybrid vehicles to high gasoline prices. Since March 7, the average price per gallon of regular gas in the Washington area has soared from $2.29 to $3.03.

“In the metropolitan area here, people are so conscious of traffic,” said Mr. Nardelli, adding that the Escape is attractive to commuters because it uses only electric power at speeds below 25 mph. “So, if you’re in the [high-occupancy vehicle] lane or you’re on [Interstate] 66 and you’re not moving, you’re not burning any gas.”

Of course, how much consumers save by purchasing a hybrid depends on where and how often they drive. A 2006 gas-electric Honda Civic four-door sedan has a manufactured suggested retail price of $22,150 — nearly $3,000 more than a 2006 four-door Civic EX automatic at $19,260. Holding gas prices at $3 per gallon, averaging together city and highway miles per gallon and assuming a driver clocks 15,000 miles per year, it would take nearly six years — factoring in a $500 federal tax deduction — to recoup the additional cost.

Hybrid manufacturers note that it is not all about the money. Environmentally conscious customers tout the decreased pollution and reduced reliance on oil.

In Virginia, many residents who are buying hybrids also are hurrying to beat a July 1 deadline to be eligible to travel in the HOV lanes on Interstate 95 and Interstate 395 without meeting occupancy requirements.

State lawmakers have enacted legislation to extend through July 2007 the provision that allows drivers of hybrid vehicles with “clean special fuel” license plates — for which only hybrids are eligible — to use the lanes.

However, only hybrids purchased before July 1 qualify.

“What they really want is that license plate,” said Mr. Fry at Honda of Tysons Corner.

With gas prices showing no signs of falling and the onset of the summer driving season, hybrid dealers say they expect the shortage to continue into the near future.

For now, local car buyers interested in an upgraded Prius could be in for a two-month wait, said Kelly Padgett, a senior sales manager at Lustine Toyota in Woodbridge.

“It’s good for business [but] it really creates more frustration because people can’t get what they want to buy,” Mr. Padgett said.

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