Hybrid Cars Get a Glamour Boost

Hollywood celebrities popularizing hybrid EVs.

Published: 06-Feb-2003

efficiency has become something of a cause celebre among the glitterati. From the Rolling Stones/Natural Resources Defense Council global warming concert scheduled for Feb. 6 in Los Angeles, to the anti-SUV ad campaign sponsored by Arianna Huffington and Laurie David (wife of writer-comedian Larry David) to the growing popularity of the hybrid Toyota Prius among movie stars, Hollywood and the music industry now appear to be leading the charge for U.S. action on climate change and energy efficiency.

In particular, the incendiary anti-SUV ads, which link the gas-guzzling vehicles to terrorism in the Middle East, have garnered a huge amount of media attention even though they have not yet been broadcast. (You can see them or contribute funds towards their media buy on Huffington's website.) Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of this trend is the number of Toyoto Prius owners among the movie crowd, who talk up their love for the efficient if slightly awkward-looking cars, and by association, even make them seem glamorous. Larry David bought three, including one for his character to drive on his HBO series, "Curb Your Enthusiasm." "It works on every level," says David. "I'm doing something good, and my wife has sex with me more often" (Washington Post, 6 Jun 2002).

According to Toyota, the car has been purchased by a dazzling list of stars, including Cameron Diaz, Donny Osmond, Ted Danson, Jeff Goldblum, and Leonardo DiCaprio, who has bought four for himself and other members of his family. (For a longer list, including some prominent politicians and environmentalists, see Toyota's website.)

Still, the hybrid's sales are dwarfed by the massive popularity of SUVs. Toyota has sold only about 40,000 Priuses in the U.S. since their introduction in July 2000, although sales last year rose 33 percent over the year before. Honda has its own, less glamorous hybrid version of the Civic, and a company spokesperson says the company's selling about 2,000 of the hybrid cars per month: "The Prius may be more for the Hollywood crowd. We're drawing more the typical Honda customer" (AutoWeek online, 22 Jan 2003).

Signs of an anti-celebrity backlash have already appeared, including an opinion piece by David Brooks in the Wall Street Journal, who said all the criticism of the SUV may lead him to purchase one for the first time, and dubiously claimed that getting one is "a way to connect imaginatively with a more inspiring life than the one you actually lead" (Wall Street Journal, 21 Jan 2003). (For more on the pro-hybrid celebrity trend, as well as the dangers of a boomerang, check out this recent article from the Los Angeles Times.)

Soon, American consumers may have the opportunity to combine their love for the hulking SUV with the rising popularity of the more environmentally-correct hybrid. Toyota will have a hybrid SUV for sale within two years; Toyota's ambitious plans also include fuel-cell and hydrogen-powered vehicles (New York Times, 26 Jan 2003). General Motors has announced plans to offer a full line of hybrids, from sedans to SUVs, starting in 2004, and says that it intends to sell up to a million of these models by 2007 (San Jose Mercury News, 4 Jan 2003). Ford will introduce a hybrid version of its Escape SUV later this year that is expected to get 40 to 50 miles per gallon. Let's hope that the U.S. auto companies are really interested in selling these vehicles in substantial numbers, and are not just making the gesture of offering a few for the sake of good PR. Given their previous record, a healthy dose of skepticism might be in order.

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