Gasoline prices are soaring, but there's a small group of car owners who barely take notice. They drive hybrids -- cars that run on both gasoline and electricity and get more than double the mileage, pollute less and -- at about $21,000 -- cost less than the average car.
Want one? Get in line.
There's a five-month waiting list for the Toyota Prius, because Toyota Motor Corp. doesn't plan to manufacture many. The Prius, roughly the size of a Corolla, can go about 600 miles on an 11.9-gallon tank of gasoline. There is less demand for the Honda Insight, a two-seat hybrid about the size of a Civic.
Unlike the pure electric cars, the hybrids don't need to be plugged in, because the batteries charge themselves every time you hit the brakes, and that has made them a huge hit in the niche they were designed for: the hip, the environmentalists and the technology enthusiasts.
The Prius went on sale in the United States last July, the Insight in December 1999. But already these cars have achieved a certain status, especially on the West Coast, where 25 percent of all hybrids are sold. Hollywood celebrities Donna Mills and Ed Begley Jr. each drive a Prius. Leonardo DiCaprio has two. The environmentally correct car also has a following among politicians, government bureaucrats and environmentalists. Maine Gov. Angus King and Kirk Watson, the mayor of Austin, Texas, own Insights. The executive directors of Environmental Defense and the Union of Concerned Scientists each own a Prius. Singer James Taylor has an Insight.
Still, barring a further explosion in the price of gasoline to $3 or $4 a gallon, auto experts don't expect the Prius or Insight to turn into a mass-market star in America, where 17 million vehicles were sold last year.
The hottest-selling vehicles in the United States these days are pickup trucks, minivans and sport-utility vehicles, not small cars. Americans love their cars to be powerful, muscular and flashy, and $1.65-a-gallon gas is not enough incentive to change those tastes, especially since, at that price, gasoline is still relatively inexpensive when adjusted for inflation.
Even Toyota and Honda Motor Co. have modest plans for this first generation of hybrid cars. The two Japanese automakers this year plan to build fewer than 20,000 of the cars between them for sale in the United States. Toyota's manufacturing facilities were set up to produce only 40,000 Priuses a year, because the company was unsure what kind of reception this technology would receive.
Half of the Priuses produced are for sale in Japan; of the rest, 12,000 are for the United States. Despite the five-month wait in the United States, Toyota has no plans to ramp up production, because demand is still small compared with that for other cars it sells.
General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and DaimlerChrysler AG do not yet have any hybrid cars but are planning to bring hybrid SUVs vehicles to market in 2003.
Hybrid cars combine gasoline engines and electric motors to provide maximum fuel efficiency while polluting less. The Insight has an Environmental Protection Agency rating of 61 and 68 miles per gallon in city and highway driving, respectively, and the Prius is rated at 52 miles per gallon in the city and 45 on the highway. Both cars can achieve speeds of more than 100 mph.
The technology is not new. The 1917 Woods was a hybrid using the same basic concepts used in today's cars, including the ability to recharge the battery through the friction of the braking system.
Toyota started building the Prius to sell in Japan nearly four years ago in response to growing demand for cars that polluted less and used less gasoline. The hybrid is an interim technology until the auto industry can perfect a workable and affordable storage battery for pure electric cars.
The Insight and Prius are designed differently. The Honda Insight has a 67-horsepower, three-cylinder gasoline engine supplemented by an electric motor with a computer that switches power back and forth as conditions demand.
In the Prius, the electric motor is the main power plant and it is supplemented by a small gasoline engine. It gets better gas mileage in city driving than it does on the highway, because the car uses the electric motor at slow speeds and switches to the gasoline engine at higher speeds. Electric motors pollute 95 percent less than conventional gasoline engines, according to Toyota.
According to Honda, typical hybrid buyers tend to be technology enthusiasts who want to be the first in their neighborhood to get the car, environmentalists who want cars that conserve gasoline and pollute less, and young people who just think it's a fun car.
Joshua Goldman, 24, who graduated from the University of Maryland last year, talks about the Insight with an engineer's precision. He says the vehicle gets 79.6 miles per gallon on his 12.8 mile round-trip commute to work. And if you go by the speedometer, he says, the top speed is 113 mph, but he said the top speed was really only 110.6 mph, according to his global positioning satellite system.
Goldman, whose engineering speciality is hybrid technology, now works at a San Diego company that builds hybrid trucks.
Toyota's profile of a Prius buyer is different. Seventy-one percent of Prius buyers are men; buyers have an average age of 53, a college education and a median income of $85,900 a year.
To help calm fears buyers might have about the reliability of such a new technology, both cars offer a powertrain warranty good for eight years or 100,000 miles.
Meanwhile GM, Ford and DaimlerChrysler continue to work on hybrids of their own, but for midsize and small SUVs, not small cars. All three automakers plan to use the Honda approach of a base gasoline engine supplemented by an electric motor.
Asked why his company was putting the hybrid technology in an SUV and not a smaller, more fuel-efficient car, DaimlerChrysler spokesman Sjoerd Dijkstra said: "Everybody else is going after those little vehicles that nobody buys. We think it's better to put the (energy) savings where the cars are."
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