Demand for Hybrids Is Growing

California consumers represent 30 percent of market for the Toyota Prius, where waiting time is now estimated at three months

Published: 03-Jan-2005

Babiarz got the phone call she was waiting for months after deciding to trade her aging Pontiac for a car powered in part by electricity.

A Toyota dealer in El Cajon called to say a hybrid Prius was on the lot.

Babiarz missed the call.

"I missed it by two hours," said Babiarz of the Prius call. "By the time I was able to check for voice messages … the car was gone."

High gas prices, environmental worries and even celebrity endorsements are driving demand for hybrid-powered vehicles to an all-time high.

And California is leading the way.

Consumers in the state represent 30 percent of market for the Toyota Prius, the most popular hybrid car available.

But they’re also snapping up hybrid Honda Civics and eagerly anticipating a spate of hybrid SUVs and other models.

The waiting time for a Prius is an estimated three months.

At the sales department in Toyota of the Desert, Justin Roberts said the high price of gasoline is driving hybrid sales.

"We get a lot of trade-ins in the bigger vehicles," Roberts said. "People trying to get away from them."

Hybrids are vehicles powered by a combination of gasoline and electric energy. When the car is running on gas or braking, energy from the motion recharges the batteries for electric power, eliminating the need to plug the vehicles into an outlet.

The Prius gets an estimated 55 miles per gallon, about twice the mileage of a comparable gas-only Toyota.

Another reason for increasing sales is that car manufacturers eschewed the futuristic look of first generation hybrids for new models that blend in with traffic.

Scott Fischler of La Quinta upgraded from a tear-shaped Honda Insight hybrid to a Civic hybrid that looks like any other car on the road.

"The vehicles are becoming much more stylish," Fischler said.

He also said his new Civic hybrid performs much better than the old Insight.

"The Insight, you knew you were in something different. The Civic, you don’t," he said. "They feel much more solid."

But as hybrids evolve to fit consumer taste, they are also expected to use more gasoline.

Cindy Knight, environmental communications administrator for Toyota Motor Sales, USA, said performance is driving hybrid vehicle development as much as fuel economy.

"The next strategy is to build performance into the vehicle," she said of Toyota’s plans. "The tradeoff will be that they will possibly be a little less fuel efficient."

The company expects that two hybrid luxury SUVs it plans to roll out will broaden the appeal of the technology to more consumers.

"They will not go for something that entails sacrifice or tradeoff," Knight said. "What they want is a product that is better than the last product."

That’s even true for Babiarz, who is director of the Energy and Technology Training Center at College of the Desert.

Even though her job immerses her in a culture that is trying to reduce gasoline consumption, Babiarz doesn’t ignore performance when buying a car.

She’s already bought a top-of-the line Prius, about $30,000.

Like others on the waiting list, Babiarz bought a car in advance and waited for it arrive. She’s already looking forward to driving it.

"It has got a great body," she said of the car. "Almost like a nice little station wagon."

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