Glorified Golf Cart? No. It’s a Hybrid Car

More automobile companies are finding a market for such eco-friendly cars

Published: 06-Aug-2003

ALOOSA | Patrick Byrd cuts a pretty conspicuous figure when he’s driving down the road.

His car, a two-seat, two-door Honda Insight, isn’t a common sight in Tuscaloosa, and he said it usually gets a lot of attention for its space-age looks.

But the car also gets attention for something that isn’t immediately visible from the road: It’s a hybrid car. Currently, only three hybrids are available: Honda’s Insight and a hybrid version of its Civic, and Toyota’s Prius.

Byrd bought his Insight six months ago, when he thought a then-impending war in Iraq would drive gas prices higher.

“I thought I was being really smart because oil prices would go up," he said. “I thought I was getting in on a trend early."

Hybrid cars work on a combination of a gas engine and an electric battery. The battery kicks in when the car is stationary or coasting, thus saving gas. Hybrids get better gas mileage in the city than on the highway because the battery takes over when the car is stopped at traffic lights, rendering the car almost silent.

The electric motor in a Honda hybrid also assists in climbing hills or accelerating; in the Toyota Prius, the electric motor takes over at low speeds.

The battery is recharged when the driver brakes, which recaptures the kinetic energy generated by the brakes to charge the battery pack.

Tuscaloosa resident Shawn Sullivan bought a Prius in April 2001 to accommodate a long commute.

“It’s a wonderful vehicle," he said. “When I’m sitting in traffic and the gas engine shuts off, people will look over at me because they think the car’s stalled. And it’s running."

A hybrid’s key selling point is its fuel efficiency. Depending on the brand, hybrids get much better gas mileage than their gas-only counterparts. The Insight with manual transmission is billed at 61 mpg in the city and 68 on the highway; Byrd said the mileage on his automatic transmission version is about 50 to 52 mpg.

The Prius is advertised at about 52 mpg in the city and 48 on the highway; Sullivan said the average for his is about 45 mpg.

Although gas prices have not risen extraordinarily, Byrd, who teaches school in Eutaw and is working on a master’s degree at the University of West Alabama, said he is still glad he bought the car, saying he logs a lot of miles each week.

He said the notion of owning an environmentally friendly car was a big consideration in his purchase.

“It’s really good on pollution. It gets low emissions, and you even get a tax credit when you buy it."

Hippie car

Until recently, hybrids suffered from an image problem as an eco-hippie car. People joked that a hybrid ran like a golf cart and had to be plugged into an outlet to recharge.

“I got that a lot," Sullivan said. “I believe a lot of people just don’t realize what hybrid technology has progressed to.

“It’s not a high-powered vehicle, but it will beat anything out there. The pick-up is surprising."

“Everyone thinks it runs weak, that it’s underpowered," Byrd said. “It’s not. I’ve had weak cars ó I drove an Aspire ó so I know what frail is. This isn’t."

His one complaint is that the seats in his two-door Insight “aren’t too comfortable. This isn’t a luxury sedan."

In their earlier incarnations, hybrids were also unattractive. “They were small, they were ugly," said Mark Johnson, sales manager for Townsend Honda.

“But Toyota and Honda were always ahead of the curve on the research and development of hybrids. They were looking 20 years down the road."

The cars are now mainstream in looks and affordability, but they still have a pricing disadvantage that puts their cost several thousand dollars higher than their gas-only counterparts.

The hybrid Civic, for example, is about $21,000 while a gas-powered Civic is $18,300. The Toyota Prius sells for just under $20,000, while a Corolla, its closest equivalent, sells for several thousand less.

A bigger market

The war with Iraq and the threat of rising gas prices has since raised the profile of hybrid cars. The Bush administration and Congress have pushed energy policy bills that include proposals for higher fuel efficiency standards, and lawmakers instituted a one-time federal tax credit of $2,000 for purchasers of new hybrids.

In California, where smog levels and tough emissions standards have mandated cleaner cars, hybrids are hugely popular. That’s created a growing market for cars that run green.

“At first, the number of Insights in production was pretty slim," Johnson said. “But they’ve upped the production, and we’re starting to see more. They’re especially popular in California and in Japan. They’ve always been popular somewhere else."

But Johnson said the cars are catching on locally.

“We sell every one we get," he said. “A lot of the people buying are commuters, but I’d say half of them are people who are getting interested in the environment. And the company is really pushing the environmental aspect of it."

Scott Bell, sales consultant for Tuscaloosa Toyota, said the dealership sells between eight to 10 Priuses each year.

“It’s not a core vehicle; people tended to stay away at first because it was new technology," he said. But now people are becoming more interested, citing its gas mileage, its ultra-low emissions rate and the fact that it “drives like a regular car," as reasons, Bell said.

He said Tuscaloosa Toyota keeps a Prius in its rental fleet for people who need an alternative car while their own is being serviced.

“People ask for it now because they think it’s a fun car to try out."

A J.D. Power and Associates poll earlier this year found that 30 percent of new-vehicle buyers would definitely consider a hybrid car, and another 30 percent would “strongly" consider it, especially if it were a car in a class they wanted.

Toyota and Honda have also added their own incentives. New Prius owners receive their first six maintenance check-ups free, and the 2004 redesigned Prius will be roomier than a compact, but at the same price.

Proponents of hybrid cars also point out that the cost of the car is offset by the lower cost of buying gas for it. Hybrids also require oil changes less frequently.

Sullivan said he saves about $250 a year on maintenance and gas with his hybrid, “easily."

He said the Prius also comes with amenities that are not standard for a car of its class, such as a DVD navigation system, touch-screen radio and audio controls.

While Toyota and Honda make the only hybrid cars on the market, more are expected to become available within the next five years.

Toyota is planning to add a hybrid SUV, and Ford is getting ready to roll out its own, the Escape HEV. DaimlerChrysler has a hybrid vehicle in the works slated for 2004, and GM and Dodge are planning hybrid versions of their pickup trucks.

Byrd said many people may still be reluctant to buy a hybrid because it’s a relatively new concept in the United States, but he researched them before buying his Insight.

“They’ve been selling [hybrids] in Japan for years," he said. “If it were brand-new technology, I’d be concerned, but it’s not.

“It drives just like a regular car."

Sullivan said he’s seen a handful of cars like his in Tuscaloosa but not many. He believes the demand for hybrid cars will never be huge until people are given an incentive to drive one over an ordinary car.

“There is no value to this vehicle in a rural environment," he said. “It’s always been marketed for an urban market.

“I think it’s going to take mainstream advertising to get people to actually look at it and go to see it in action.

“But I believe all the major manufacturers will be going for hybrids as the next generation of cars."

Reach Katherine Lee at katherine.lee@tuscaloosanews.com or 722-0196.

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