Green cars and red ink

Will clean, green cars ever evolve from their tiny niche market in America?

Published: 04-Nov-2000

You'd think with oil prices up, the Mideast in upheaval, and giant sport utility vehicles under assault, this would be the moment for Americans to get serious about buying cars that get 40 to 50 miles per gallon.

That is what Toyota and Honda are hoping as they launch new gasoline-electric hybrid cars. Toyota rolled out its Prius in July and says it is selling 1,000 a month. Dealers report it's sold out, with an order backlog through February. Honda, whose Insight became available nationally last spring, says it's on track to sell 6,500 of these futuristic-looking vehicles in a year, at least a quarter of them in California. Both cost about $20,000 and will save a driver money at the gas station. Insight gets 61 mpg in the city and 68 mpg on the highway. The Prius doesn't do as well 52 mpg in the city and 45 mpg on the highway but it pollutes less.

Taken together, sales of these two hybrids will represent roughly 0.1 percent of the 17 million vehicles or so that Americans will buy each year. A modest start toward more environmentally friendly cars? Yes, but after years of misstarts, failed promises, and hype, it's a new beginning nonetheless. The conventional wisdom has been that Americans who love turbocharged power, walnut-burnished luxury, and Bunyanesque size would never buy a small car that required time-consuming and inconvenient recharging of batteries. The CW was right. General Motors says it learned that the hard way with its all-electric vehicle, the EV1, which didn't fare well with consumers in California. Drivers didn't want to risk going 80 miles into the desert and then have to wait overnight for the car's batteries to recharge for the trip home. GM stopped making them.

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