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Gas prices have drivers pumped for hybrids

March 29, 2004|by BRIAN SHAPPELL

shappell@herald-mail.com

HAGERSTOWN - The demonstration-only hybrid parked outside Younger Toyota on Dual Highway in Hagerstown is the only one the Younger staff can keep on the lot for an extended period of time.

Sales associates and managers at Younger and at Hagerstown Honda said far more people are trying to get hybrid cars than there are such vehicles available for sale.

Record-high gasoline prices have contributed to the buzz about hybrid cars.

The hybrid cars have engines that rely on a changing balance between gas and electric power.

The Honda Insight and the Toyota Prius were the first two cars listed in the Pump Busters 2004 slide show on Forbes.com. A hybrid car, the Prius was named the 2004 "car of the year" by Motor Trend magazine.

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Hagerstown Honda sales manager Dave Ainsworth said the Insight and the hybrid version of the Civic have been popular among customers. He said the demand is far exceeding the supply of hybrid cars on the lot.

Ainsworth said there is a long waiting list for hybrid Hondas, but he would not say how many people are signed up or how many of the cars have been sold in the last year.

According to Forbes.com, the Insight gets about 60 miles per gallon in the city and 66 miles per gallon on the highway.

The Prius gets 51 miles per gallon on the highway, and, because of its unique engine, gets 60 miles per gallon in the city, according to the site.

Younger Toyota sales manager Randy Smith said an eight-month waiting list like the one at the Hagerstown dealership is not unusual at Toyota dealers. Smith said 30 of the 2004 Prius models have been sold locally, and 18 more buyers have put down deposits on hybrids.

Demand outpaces supply


Smith said Younger Toyota is no longer taking deposits for the cars because plants are not making the hybrid batteries quickly enough to keep up with demand.

"We just don't know how far back it's going to go, and it seems awful silly for us to hold someone's money for a year," Smith said.

In the case of the Prius, the gasoline-powered portion of the engine does not begin working until the car is traveling bout 30 mph, said Younger Toyota sales associate Albert Benipayo. He said the hybrid battery, which is under warranty for eight years in most cases, recharges during periods of deceleration and when the gas-powered engine is at work.

While the Prius does not corner like a race-inspired sports car, the car's performance and power make it difficult to notice that it is only running on gasoline power a part of the time. Even less noticeable is the sound of shifting apparent in many cars, as virtually no noise is generated when the car shifts gears or from electric power to gasoline power.

Benipayo said people with concerns about high gasoline prices or environmentally damaging emissions have shown the most interest in the hybrids.

He said nearly all of the buyers get more excited about the car when they see all its "toys," or special features. With keyless entry, push-button starting, the GPS navigation system, a computerized planner and a telephone system at the touch of an on-screen button, technologically savvy people are drawn to it, Benipayo said.

Eric Johnson, a Hagerstown-based chiropractor, said a patient persuaded him to take a test drive when the hybrids first hit the market locally in 2001. Johnson said he was impressed by the car's gas mileage, environmentally conscious design and especially the features, including the navigation system.

"Nobody else had it," he said. "I spend a lot of time in the car. I go to D.C. a lot for seminars. It's so much easier to just punch an address in and let the car guide you."

Johnson, who still owns his 2002 Prius, said the hybrid has turned out to be reliable despite his concerns.

"The only concern I had was it was new technology, and maintenance could be high," Johnson said.

Some skepticism


Allen Duffey of Hagerstown said such concerns have him somewhat skeptical.

"It's a good idea, but it's too early to tell if they're feasible, if they don't have problems," he said.

Several other motorists said Sunday evening that they liked the concept of the hybrids but had concerns about the cost. The starting price of hybrids is more than $5,000 more than some other cars in their class. The Prius starts at about $20,000 and costs about $26,000 when fully loaded, but by comparison the Corolla's range is about $15,200 to $18,000, and the Echo's range is $13,800 to $15,100, Toyota representatives said.

"I would get one if I could afford one," said Kristine Paul of Hagerstown.

While Honda and Toyota are selling the hybrids by the dozen, other well-known car brands, including Ford and Chevrolet, don't have hybrid cars ready for sale in many parts of the country.

While they are gaining in popularity, the hybrids are still very much an exception and not the rule on the roads.

"I've never heard of anything about it," said Shirley Lloyd of Hagerstown while filling her pickup truck's tank.

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