Hybrid Car's New Benefit

Fate of HEVs rests in hands of soccer moms, say consumer experts.

Published: 01-Mar-2003

VIENNA, Va. — Francine Rosenberger is not a tree hugger. The securities lawyer does not rant against gas-guzzling vehicles and has no moral opposition to parking a second SUV in her driveway.

Yet there she was at the Koons Toyota dealership recently, peeking under the hood of a Prius, sizing up the gas-electric car designed for fuel-efficiency and low emissions.

A Virginia law that permits hybrid owners to drive solo in high-occupancy lanes during rush hour prompted Rosenberger, 35, to shop for an eco-friendly car. "That saves me time, which is worth more than anything," said the mother of two infants, whose eight-mile commute from Arlington, Va., can take 45 minutes. "The gas mileage is just a bonus."

Salesmen at Koons Toyota and crosstown rival Rosenthal Honda, who both lead the nation in hybrid sales to consumers, say pragmatism regularly trumps idealism among buyers of gas-electric cars. Meanwhile, as automakers try to figure out how to give hybrids mainstream appeal, marketing gurus suggest paying more attention to the needs of people such as Rosenberger, the soccer moms of tomorrow.

As one marketing executive put it, hybrid technology will either flourish like cell phones or languish like e-books.

Hybrids are powered by a gasoline engine and an electric motor attached to a battery. The electric motor kicks in at low speeds in the Prius and during acceleration in Honda's Civic Hybrid. The battery recharges when the engine is running and when the driver steps on the brakes. Both cars cost a few thousand dollars more than comparable conventional models, but they get more than 45 miles per gallon.

If hybrids are to ever gain wider acceptance — they made up less than 1 percent of all car sales last year — automakers will need "to make these cars practical for families with kids," said Jon Berry, senior research director at market research firm Roper ASW in New York and co-author of "The Influentials," a book about trend-setting consumers.

That means putting gas-electric engines into larger vehicles, reducing the cost and improving their somewhat sluggish performance — goals the major automakers are working on.

If Virginia consumers are a barometer, a bill in Congress to give passenger-less hybrids access to high-occupancy lanes nationwide could further boost interest in major metropolitan areas. (Arizona already exempts hybrid owners from high- occupancy restrictions.)

For now, hybrids are still on the fringe, a transportation alternative popular with environmentalists, technology buffs and image-conscious movie stars. About a third of all hybrids are bought in California, according to automakers, while sales in the midsection of America remain practically nonexistent.

"The trendsetters are on the East and West coasts," said Ed LaRocque, Toyota's manager of advanced technology vehicles. The Prius and Civic Hybrid cost about $20,000 each. Offsetting the premium price somewhat is a federal law that allows hybrid owners to take a one-time $2,000 tax deduction. That law is set to die in 2004, although industry officials expect Congress to grant at least a two-year extension.. As for savings at the pump, hybrid makers say it could take a decade for motorists to recoup the premium they paid.

Lyle Brown, 43, of Spotsylvania County, Va., totaled his first Prius and then bought another. He breezing past rush-hour traffic jams in the high-occupancy lane is worth the extra money. A commander in the Naval Reserves, Brown can make it to work in under an hour — about a half-hour faster than when he had to carpool to qualify for high-occupancy access.

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