Hybrid automobiles hitting the mainstream

Filed under: Focus |

Contrary to popular belief, they’re not painfully slow nor do they need to be plugged in. Those are only two of the reasons that explain why hybrid vehicles are rapidly gaining popularity across the nation, including here in Colorado Springs.

The Toyota Prius and Honda Civic hybrid have been racing off the lots according to local dealers.

Hybrid cars are powered by small internal combustion engines and electric motors. An internal battery pack stores energy generated by the electric motor when the driver brakes or coasts to a stop. Gasoline is still contained in a traditional fuel tank, providing all the necessary energy for the car. No electrical outlets required.

Having an electric motor means greater fuel efficiency, allowing hybrid owners are able to stretch their gasoline dollar. The average price of a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline in Colorado Springs was $1.781 on Wednesday, according to AAA. That was 7 cents higher than the average price on March 24.

Hybrid vehicles also have lower greenhouse gas emissions, making for a cleaner drive.

The Toyota Prius, Motor Trend’s 2004 Car of the Year, has an EPA fuel economy of 59 mpg in the city, according to Car and Driver magazine. The Prius, which has a base price of $20,510, is a four-door hatchback and seats five passengers.

“I had five people in it last night with room for my dog in the back,” said Karen Gale, a massage therapist, who debated whether to buy a Jaguar or a Prius. She decided on the more fuel-efficient option. “People think that since it is a small car it doesn’t have any power, but it just flies.”

Gale said she purchased her 2004 Prius in December 2003 and paid $26,000, which included tax and a 10-year 100,000 mile warranty.

“We can’t keep them in stock,” said Ken Wroblewski, the new car manager at Toyota of Colorado Springs. There is a three to four month waiting list to buy a Prius at the Motor City dealership.

“It has a computer that decides what would be most efficient – gas, electric or both,” Wroblewski said.

The Honda Civic hybrid was introduced in 2002 as a 2003 model. The Civic hybrid gets 47-48 mpg in city driving and 48-51 mpg on the highway according to Car and Driver. Like the Prius, it is a four-door five passenger sedan, but doesn’t have the hatchback design. The hybrid Civic carries a $20,010 base price tag.

“We sell pretty much every one we get,” said Chris Mistich, sales manager at Team Honda, which sells about six to eight hybrid Civics a month.

Mistich said his customers seem to be primarily concerned with fuel economy – and increasing gas prices – but some do express an interest in protecting the environment.

Honda has another hybrid model, the smaller Insight. Though less popular, it boasts impressive fuel economy. The Insight gets 57-61 mpg in the city and 56-68 mpg on the highway, according to Car and Driver.

Team Honda does not sell the Insight. “It is a two passenger vehicle&. Pretty much nobody carries them,” Mistich said. The demand is for roomier cars. “If gas prices get crazy, then maybe people will consider the Insight,” he said.

Ford has plans to release a hybrid Escape sport utility vehicle in late summer or early. The Escape hybrid gets 35-40 mpg according to Nelson Martinez, sales manager at Phil Long Ford south. “The gas mileage is the second question asked after the sale price of the vehicle,” Martinez said. Ford’s Web site has a short film highlighting the features of the Escape hybrid.

Lexus plans to release its hybrid RX400h luxury SUV this fall. The Toyota hybrid Highlander SUV will go on sale next year, according to Car and Driver. “Toyota’s goal is to make every model available in a hybrid,” Wroblewski said.

The federal government offers a one-time federal income tax deduction to hybrid car buyers. Consumers who purchase hybrid vehicles in 2004 will be eligible for a tax deduction of up to $1,500. The amount drops to $1,000 for vehicles purchased in 2005 and $500 in 2006 according to the U.S. Department of Energy’s www.fueleconomy.gov Web site.

- Editorial@csbj.com