Appeal of Gas-Electric Hybrids Growing
h Whiting typifies the Coulee Region's first generation of hybrid car owners.
The French Island man retired from the La Crosse School District in 1998 as supervisor of media and technology, and he has long enjoyed learning how things work.
Whiting's children are grown, so he and his wife don't need a big care. They also do a lot of in-state driving.
"I've always been interested in good, fuel-efficient cars," said Whiting, who drives a bright red 2000 Honda Insight. "It's just a very efficient way to travel."
Dave and Lori Stetzer of La Crosse are more typical current hybrid buyers, local dealers say. The Stetzers have two children, Jacob, 14, and Kiley, 12.
The couple bought a silver 2005 Toyota Prius on Valentine's Day last year, and the car was delivered to their home about six months later. Although Dave Stetzer is the one who is interested in the technology, Lori Stetzer is the one who's driving the vehicle every day.
"At first it was really different," she said. "But I like driving it. It's fun, and it's fun to watch other people's reactions, too."
Chris Schneider, president of Honda Motorwerks, the first local car company to offer gas and electric hybrid vehicles, said the first wave of hybrid buyers in 2000 was made up of retired engineers and similar souls who were interested in the technology.
Those first hybrid buyers didn't need more than two seats in a vehicle, which is good because that's the only way the Honda Insight came. They were fascinated with how the vehicle worked, and they reveled in the novelty of the car.
Sean Green, general sales manager and part-owner of Midwest Toyota, said although the first hybrids appealed to highly-educated, engineer types, he's now selling them to people of all ages — people who just want to save money on gas or do something good for the environment.
Families and singles in their 30s and 40s are now buying hybrids, Green said. Pre-owned models are being sold to pizza delivery people and students. The hybrid Accord is appealing to people in their 50s and 60s who like luxury sedans, said Schneider.
"It's really expanded all over the board," Green said.
Both Schneider and Green said the hybrid demographic changed because there are more vehicles available. Most of the major car companies either offer a hybrid or plan to offer one in the next few years.
Hybrid car sales have risen consistently in the U.S. since the Honda Insight debuted in the American market in 1999, according to the Web site hybridcars.com. In that year, only a couple of hundred Insights were sold, according to the Web site, but sales have generally doubled every year since then: 9,350 in 2000; 20,287 in 2001; 35,000 in 2002; and 47,525 in 2003.
Schneider sold five hybrid vehicles the first year they were available. Last year he sold 143.
Green has sold about 125 new and used hybrid models since the 2001 Prius first became available.
Both dealerships have waiting lists, and they receive only a limited number of hybrids every month.
Whiting had 74,327 miles on his Honda Insight as of Jan. 24, and he has averaged 60.3 miles per gallon since he bought the car, according to an on-board computer that tracks mileage and other information.
Whiting said he never has had to have anything on his vehicle repaired. He said oil changes cost the same as those for any other car, and the maintenance schedule also is similar. He said he doesn't have problems driving up hills, although he does have to downshift just like with any other 5-speed.
Lori Stetzer said it took her a while to get used to her Toyota Prius because it doesn't sound like it's running when the gas engine isn't being used. She doesn't use a key. Instead, she carries a small, electronic box that starts the car. There is no traditional dashboard, and the speed is listed in green numbers at the bottom of the windshield.
The Stetzers said they average 35 to 40 miles per gallon in the winter (when the heat is in use), but 45 to 50 miles per gallon during the summer months. They said the car seats five comfortably, and the biggest complaint they've heard from other hybrid owners is that they don't get the advertised mileage.
Lori Stetzer said she doesn't get the best mileage and she doesn't care — she'd rather have the heat on high in the winter and drive the way she likes (as she says, with a "lead foot"). Her husband gets better gas mileage when he drives, she said.
"It's all in how you work the gas and take off," Dave Stetzer said.
John Fassbinder of Prairie du Chien, Wis., has put a combined 100,000 miles on five hybrid vehicles he has owned: three Honda Insights, a Toyota Prius and a Honda Accord.
Fassbinder drives all around the United States to look for automobiles for his car collection. He said he has saved thousands of dollars in gasoline since he switched to hybrids.
"The big advantages are the mileage, the quietness and the resale value," Fassbinder said.
"I can't imagine any disadvantages. I can't even think of one."
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