Hybrid Vehicle Demand Up Sharply in Georgia and Nationwide

With gas prices hovering around $2 a gallon and government regulators trying to control emissions, hybrid vehicles may be the way to travel.

Oct. 31—With gas prices hovering around $2 a gallon and government regulators trying to control emissions, hybrid vehicles may be the way to travel.

But finding a hybrid at a Middle Georgia dealership this fall might be a challenge.

Seven people are waiting for their 2005 Prius hybrid, said Jerry Herrin, new car sales manager with Eddie Wiggins Toyota in Warner Robins.

"When (the Prius) first came out four years ago, they didn't sell," Herrin said. "I had six to eight on the lot at one time. When the new model came out (this year), it was an instant success. A lot of dealers have 50-plus on a waiting list. I have seven pre-sold."

A hybrid vehicle has a gasoline engine and an electric motor. The electric motor runs at low speeds, which makes the car more fuel efficient with reduced emissions. The gas engine kicks in during highway driving.

Hybrids get better gas mileage in city driving than on the highway, which is opposite full gasoline-powered vehicles. For example, estimates for the 2005 Prius is 60 miles per gallon in the city and 51 miles per gallon on the highway.

Until this year, only Toyota and Honda made small hybrid cars, but other makes and models are on the way.

First hybrid SUV is scarce.

Ford has built the first hybrid sport utility vehicle — the 2005 hybrid Escape — but the company manufactured only 4,000 of them. Most of those have already been sent to dealers in large cities, said Tom Thornton, Internet manager for Riverside Ford.

Riverside Ford will get one hybrid Escape in about three weeks, he said, and "we had to beg to get that one." The standard price without options is about $28,000.

"It's more to show off," Thornton said. "I can't say that we will be taking orders because there aren't any to order. We may be able to order ones in 2005, but they can produce only so many."

Anthony Pratt, senior manager of power train forecasting for J.D. Power and Associates, said one reason for the shortage is because the technology is so new. J.D. Power is a marketing information service firm based in Westlake Village, Calif.

"Up to last year, the only hybrids were the Honda Insight and the Toyota Prius," Pratt said.

Also, only a limited number of batteries used in the vehicles were available, he said. And manufacturers have been trying to determine if consumers will buy hybrids.

"There is still a lot of uncertainty about the market" on behalf of the manufacturers, Pratt said. "However, on the demand side, there is a definite demand. In fact, it's pent up. We expect about 90,000 to be sold this year, and next year we expect that to double."

About 47,500 hybrid vehicles were sold in the United States in 2003, according to data released last week by J.D. Power. In 2005, the company predicts 206,000 hybrids will be sold.

"The people who buy (hybrids) tend to be more environmentally friendly, tend to be higher educated and wealthier," Pratt said.

Thornton said the movement toward more hybrids is the latest "baby step toward liberating us from petroleum-based vehicles."

"In the past 10 years, there has been more advancement in vehicle technology than in the past 100 years," he said. "That's even going to double again in 10 years."

In 2002, Sharon Yates was one of the first to buy a 2003 hybrid Honda Civic from Walsh Honda in Macon, she said. She bought it for the gas mileage because she travels a lot as a sales agent for McNeal Insurance Agency in Warner Robins.

"I knew they were quiet, but the economy is why I bought it," Yates said. "The insurance is lower, I got a tax deduction the first year, and I can go 500 miles on a 12-gallon tank."

Because it gets such good gas mileage, she can put up with the fact that the four-cylinder car doesn't have a whole lot of power.

"It's not that it doesn't handle well, it's just a small car," she said.

The car is quite an attention-getter, she said. Strangers often approach her and ask to look under the hood.

She has driven the car 75,000 miles so far. Although she has to take it to a dealer for service because the technology is so specialized, Yates said she hasn't had any work done on it other than regular maintenance. While an oil change costs about $45 because of the special oil it uses, it only has to be changed every 10,000 miles, she said.

"No one knows how long the battery will last," she said.

Although she paid about $21,000 for the car, which is about $8,000 more than for a similar-size vehicle, she said it was a good investment.

"I have truly enjoyed mine, and I love it every time I go to the gas station," she said. "I told my husband I would drive it until the wheels fall off."

David Komaee, sales manager with Walsh Honda, said that next spring Honda will unveil a six-cylinder hybrid Accord with a 255 horsepower engine instead of 240 horsepower. It will sell for about $30,000, which is about $3,000 more than the regular Accord, he said.

"If you keep it long-term, it will definitely be worth it," Komaee said.

Since he's had so much trouble getting the new hybrid Prius, Komaee said he is looking for used ones.

"I figured I would keep some used ones in stock," he said.

One reason the hybrids are hard to find is because so far, all the hybrids have been made in Japan, Komaee said.

"Between going from boats, to rail to trucking, it's a lot of coordination, and it takes about two months to get one to us after it's been produced," he said.

The regular Civics and Accords are built in the United States, and usually dealers can get those cars a week after production, he said.

Even though everyone is interested in getting better gas milage, the hybrid technology scares some people because "they don't understand it," Komaee said.

Thornton, with Riverside Ford, said he questions the safety of hybrids, because many of them weigh much less than other vehicles.

"A little Prius isn't going to do well against a full-metal vehicle," he said.

As more hybrids arrive at car dealerships, their future rests with customers, Thornton said.

"The consumer is really the one going to vote with their pocketbooks and say this is acceptable or this is not," Thornton said. "They will say, 'We need more horsepower, we need more room, we need lower emissions.' The consumer is the one who will be making up their mind."

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