From: Patrick Danner, The Miami Herald
Published November 4, 2004 12:00 AM

New Hybrid Cars Drive American Motorists Wild

Nov. 4—Hollywood lawyer John Kelner has owned a BMW, Lexus and even a Maserati, but his current car of choice is a gas-and electric-powered Toyota Prius that cost $27,000.


"It's an incredible feeling to drive up to the gas pump and fill up for $12 — once every other week," Kelner said, referring to the Prius' 50-plus miles-to-the-gallon fuel efficiency.


Just as hybrid crops are bred to resist natural disasters like drought or disease, a new breed of hybrid cars is designed to resist economic calamities like $2-a-gallon gasoline. The high price of fuel is what should make hybrids one of the stars of the South Florida International Auto Show, opening Friday at the Miami Beach Convention Center. One of the industry's largest, the show is expected to draw 600,000 car enthusiasts over its 10-day run.


In just a few years, experts say, hybrids have gone from poor-selling industry afterthoughts to rising symbol of the automotive future.


"We're going to build what people want to buy," said Kevin Smith, a GM spokesman. "But we're expecting in the future more and more people will be concerned about fuel economy." Ford has rolled out a hybrid version of its Escape and Lexus soon will be offering its own hybrid sport-utility vehicles. And General Motors has released hybrid versions of its full-size Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickup trucks.


You'll pay a price for fewer visits to the pump: The hybrid Honda Accord, for example, carries a $3,000 premium over the comparable gas-powered Accord. So car buyers need to consider whether the premium is worth the fuel savings. Depending on one's driving habits, it could take five years to make up the cost, estimates Jesse Toprak, director of pricing and market analysis at Edmunds.com.


Hybrids do bring other benefits, though. Hybrid buyers may be eligible for a federal tax deduction of up to $2,000. And, more importantly for commuters, hybrid owners can drive solo in high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes, provided they obtain a $5 decal from the state.


While owners of early hybrids complained they lacked the power to handle sudden needs for speed, gas-engine power plants with more horsepower in newer models should allow drivers to blend into I-95 traffic easily.


Even as they grow more popular, don't count on hybrid vehicles replacing gas guzzlers any time soon. Only about 56,000 hybrid vehicles — primarily Priuses and Civics — were sold in the first nine months of this year, according to figures provided by Edmunds.com. That's well under 1 percent of all U.S. vehicles sales, which are expected to exceed 16 million this year.


The tiny number is in part a result of capacity constraints at production plants. Manufacturers simply don't have the ability to expand production to meet demand.


Waiting lists to buy a Prius extend from four to six months. Toyota next year will double the U.S. allocation of Priuses — but only to 100,000.


"There are just so many holes we can find in a production line," said Richard Kelley, a Toyota spokesman. "Sales are very strong in every vehicle we make."


Honda debuted its first hybrid vehicle in 2000 with the two-passenger Insight, but it never sold well. Toyota followed up in 2001 with the two-door, four-seat Prius, which became a hit with eco-conscious celebrities and consumers hip to cutting-edge technology. When Toyota introduced a roomier four-door Prius sedan last year, its appeal broadened, said William Reilly, marketing manager for hybrids, trucks and SUVs for Southeast Toyota Distributors in Deerfield Beach.


"All of a sudden, people who shied away from those vehicles because they were compromising on some things like power and performance were saying, 'I need to consider this,' " added Mike Maroone, president of Fort Lauderdale-based AutoNation, the nation's largest automotive retailer.


Now manufacturers are unveiling hybrid versions of vehicles traditionally available only with standard internal combustion engines. Honda will begin shipping Accord hybrids into showrooms next month. The Lexus RX 400h, a hybrid version of its RX 330 SUV, will hit showrooms in the spring. Ford's hybrid version of its Escape SUV will hit Florida in the spring. GMC's hybrid Sierra and Silverado pickups are already in showrooms in six states, including Florida.


"The wise thing to do, we feel, is to go after the larger, greater fuel-consuming vehicles first," GMC's Smith said in applying the hybrid technology to its existing fleet. "You can make a bigger impact per vehicle in fuel savings because of the amount that these large vehicles consume." The hybrid Sierra and Silverado carry a $1,500 premium over their standard cousins, but are 10 percent more fuel-efficient, Smith said.


The Honda Accord hybrid will have more horsepower than the gas-powered version (255 vs. 240), but it will have the fuel economy of the four-cylinder Civic, said Sage Marie, a spokesman for American Honda.


Besides gas-electric power, manufacturers are looking at fuel cells and multiple displacement systems as ways to improve fuel efficiency. With displacement systems, which are on a few vehicles now, a vehicle with a V8 engine only uses four cylinders when cruising on the highway.


Maroone said hybrids have the potential to account for a bigger share of auto sales.


"A lot depends on the reliability and durability of hybrid engines and whether they can continue to drive the performance characteristics... that make the performance comparable to the combustion engine in terms of torque and horsepower," Maroone said.


Southeast Toyota's Reilly added it's only a matter of time before Toyota makes a hybrid version of all of its vehicles.


"I think it's not too far off when hybrid power train is just another option, like a four cylinder or six cylinder, or a two-wheel drive or a four-wheel drive," he said.


To see more of The Miami Herald — including its homes, jobs, cars and other classified listings — or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.herald.com.© 2004, The Miami Herald. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.


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