Carmakers Backing Away From Alternative Fuel Cars as Hybrids Gain in Popularity

But despite the enthusiasm of drivers such as Deren-Lewis, automakers are retreating from vehicles which run on natural gas or gas-free electricity.

Published: 14-Jan-2005

class=abstractbody>LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Ann Deren-Lewis thought it would be hard to give up her Jeep Cherokee -- SUVs were everywhere in her gated community and at the horse shows and stables she frequents.

Then a new job 40 miles away got her thinking about guzzling gas. Out went the Jeep and in came a Honda Civic which runs on compressed natural gas, an alternative fuel cheaper than gasoline.

Her car isn't a hybrid, the increasingly popular vehicles fueled by gas and electricity. Environmentalists say it's even better. Not only do fill-ups cost Deren-Lewis less than $10, her car produces no smog-creating emissions and cuts an hour from the daily commute by letting her drive alone in the carpool lane.

"I'm driving a car that doesn't put any bad things into the environment, it's cheap to operate and maintain," said Deren-Lewis, a marketing executive at Neutrogena. "And it's comfortable."

But despite the enthusiasm of drivers such as Deren-Lewis, automakers are retreating from vehicles which run on natural gas or gas-free electricity. Car makers say there's little demand for so-called "alt-fuel" vehicles. Environmentalists say car makers aren't trying.

Meanwhile, hybrids such as the Toyota Prius are taking off.

At this week's North American Auto Show in Detroit, automakers touted hybrid SUVs and sedans. About 88,000 hybrids were sold in the United States last year, according to J.D. Power and Associates, which projects the number to more than double to about 220,000 this year.

Alternative-fuel vehicles never caught on like that -- it took about seven years for their number to double, according to federal statistics. As of 2002, Americans drove an estimated 471,000 alternative-fuel vehicles (including those powered by electricity, natural gas, propane, ethanol and methanol) the U.S. Energy Department said -- up from 247,000 in 1995.

It's barely a tiny fraction of the more than 15 million new vehicles sold annually in the United States.

Environmentalists say any vehicle that uses less gasoline is a good start. But many wonder why automakers don't focus more on promoting alternative-fuel vehicles.

"Watch television or listen to the radio, you're bombarded with ads for gas-powered vehicles," said Andy Weisser, a spokesman for the American Lung Association of California who bought a natural gas vehicle out of concern about air quality. "I have never seen a natural gas vehicle ad."

Deren-Lewis only learned about natural gas cars after Neutrogena offered incentives for alternative-fuel drivers.

Internet research and word of mouth led her to a seller. In her own experience, "you don't just pull into a Honda lot and say, 'Can you get me one of these?"'

Alternative-fuel cars do come with inconveniences: natural gas vehicles can only be fueled at special stations and electric cars take up to eight hours to recharge. Rarely can either go more than 250 miles without refueling.

For Deren-Lewis, it's not a big deal. She fills up every third day at isolated fueling stations happily located near her home in suburban Bradbury and work at Los Angeles International Airport.

Automakers see that kind of convenience as an exception. They favor hybrids because buyers can fill up at regular gas stations, said Gloria Bergquist, a spokeswoman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.

"While natural gas is widely available, the number of refueling stations is a small universe," she said. "We can build the vehicles but we can't build the fueling infrastructure."

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RELATED NEWS ITEMS

The 2006 Civic Hybrid, which achieves an EPA estimated city/highway fuel economy of 49/51 miles per gallon, goes on sale October 19 with a price of $21,850, or $23,350 when equipped with Honda's optional satellite linked navigation system.

The 190-mile range is the equivalent of 51 mpg in a gasoline car. A range of 120 miles equals 32 mpg.

The award extends to the entire Civic Sedan and Civic Coupe lineup including the environmentally responsible Civic Hybrid and high-performance Civic Si models.

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