Rising Gasoline Prices Make Hybrids More Enticing

Conservative Kansans starting to take serious interest in what they once though were 'geeky' innovation

Published: 15-Mar-2004

lass=pennysbody>"I've been thinking about one of those hybrids," my wife said as we got out of her car.

That was one of the last things I expected to hear.

My wife -- who is much more practical than I'll ever be -- was telling me she'd been considering getting one of the new gasoline/electric powered cars.

The last time we had discussed them, I'd dismissed them as a geeky innovation: interesting, a little too expensive and not something I was ready to take a chance on.

However, gasoline prices continue to go up.

The price of regular gasoline was $1.72 ($1.67 in Kansas) per gallon on average across the country last week, according to AAA's Daily Fuel Gauge Report.

I thought it was time to take another look at the track records of the hybrids.

Saving on fuel costs

Thousands of hybrids are now on the road: most of them made by Toyota and Honda. But the hybrid clan is expected to grow exponentially this year and in years to come with a new group of sedans, pickup trucks and SUVs by several other manufacturers.

I checked with Steve Stewart, manager of the city's maintenance garage, to see how the hybrids purchased by the city a few years ago were doing.

"We've got three in the fleet right now and they've worked out real well," he said. The sedans are "first generation" Toyota Priuses, bought in 2001 and 2002.

They get about 40 miles per gallon driving around the city, he said.

"I can tell you they are saving us considerable amount of money," he said.

The sticker price is usually a couple of thousand dollars more than regular cars of comparable size, he said. But most of the savings is in the long-run gasoline costs and in maintenance costs because of unusually long warranties offered by Toyota, he said.

There's also an income tax incentive -- you can get a one-time clean-fuel vehicle federal tax deduction of up to $1,500 for hybrids bought in 2004.

Stewart has been looking at the second-generation models of the Prius, (about $20,000) which get up to 60 mpg and are bigger than the first ones, holding five passengers.

The 2004 Prius has been winning awards, such as Motor Trend's "Car of the Year," Car&Driver's "10 Best List," the "2004 North American Car of the Year, "and Popular Science's 2003 "Best of What's New."

Stewart said while the Prius operates much like a regular car, there are some differences. For example, you have to get used to the car shutting itself off when you come to a stop.

As you push the accelerator, the electric engine moves the car until you reach about 15 mph, then the gasoline engine starts up to move you along faster.

His experience has been that the Prius handles well in the winter's cold, the summer's heat and during wet weather.

‘Greenest' car

Stewart has also taken a close look at the Honda hybrids.

Honda's original hybrid is an Insight (starting price $19,180), which has been rated by the Environmental Protection Agency as America's top fuel-efficient car, getting 66 mpg.

The Sierra Club has honored it as "Greenest Car" with the organization's first "Excellence in Environmental Engineering" award.

Honda also offers a hybrid in its popular Honda Civic model, which gets 51 mpg (starting price $19,650).

Stewart said he was recently at a Kansas City auto show where he learned about other hybrids, including two SUVs expected to sip gasoline.

The Ford Escape Hybrid, expected to be sold in the summer of 2005, will get between 35 and 40 mpg. Emissions are expected to meet the PZEV (Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle) standards. The Escape Hybrid will be built in the Kansas City area. There's been no word on a starting price.

Also coming out about the same time next summer is Lexus's luxury SUV hybrid, the RX 400h, which was featured in February's Chicago Auto Show. It's expected to get 60 mpg on the highway and have a starting price at more than $40,000.

General Motors is expected to bring out some "mild" hybrids later this year for the full-size Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra. They will use electric motors to power air conditioning and steering, giving about 10 to 13 percent in better on fuel mileage than their conventional gas-guzzling counterparts, which get about 16 mpg.

Others in the crop of hybrids coming out within the next year are versions of a Honda Accord, a Toyota Highlander and a Dodge Ram Pickup.

Can you say ‘hybrid?'

Bonnie was tying her shoes, getting ready to head out the door to drive to school when I asked.

"Yeah. I know a girl who has one."

I wanted to talk to my daughter what she thought about these new complex, gasoline-electric hybrid vehicles. I wanted to discuss how they work, how they can cut down on air pollution and the politics of reducing our country's reliance on foreign oil.

But Bonnie was in a hurry.

"Yeah, I'd like one," she said, rushing out the door to her car, " if it would save me money on gas."

At $1.69 a gallon, I guess that's really all you need to know.




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