Need to be practical

Makers push to give hybrids mainstream appeal


Toyota Prius owner Lyle Brown of Spotsylvania County, Va., says breezing past rush-hour traffic jams in the HOV lane makes it a worthwhile investment for a hybrid vehicle. A commander in the Naval reserves, Brown's gas/electric powered car is allowed to travel the restricted commuter lanes to his job near Washington, D.C.

The Associated Press
Published: Saturday, March 1, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, February 28, 2003 at 10:46 p.m.

Facts

Source of power

  • Hybrids are powered by a gasoline engine and an electric motor attached to a battery.
  • The electric motor kicks in at low speeds in the Prius and during acceleration in Honda's Civic Hybrid.
  • The battery recharges when the engine is running and when the driver steps on the brakes.

  • VIENNA, Va. - Francine Rosenberger is not a tree hugger. The 35-year-old securities lawyer does not empathize with rants against gas-guzzling vehicles and, truth be told, has no moral opposition to parking a second SUV in her driveway.
    Yet there she was at the Koons Toyota dealership last Friday peeking under the hood of a Prius, sizing up the gas-electric car designed for high fuel-efficiency and low emissions.
    What prompted Rosenberger to shop around for an eco-friendly car? A state law that permits hybrid owners to drive solo in high-occupancy lanes during rush hour. "That saves me time, which is worth more than anything," said the Arlington, Va., mother of two infants, whose eight-mile commute can take 45 minutes. "The gas mileage is just a bonus."
    Salesmen at Koons Toyota and crosstown rival Rosenthal Honda say pragmatism regularly trumps idealism among buyers of gas-electric cars, and they should know: Koons and Rosenthal lead the nation in sales of hybrids to consumers. Meanwhile, as automakers try to figure out how to give hybrids mainstream appeal, marketing gurus suggest paying more attention to the needs of people like Rosenberger, the soccer moms of tomorrow.
    As one marketing executive put it, hybrid technology will either flourish like cell phones or languish like e-books.
    Hybrids are powered by a gasoline engine and an electric motor attached to a battery. The electric motor kicks in at low speeds in the Prius and during acceleration in Honda's Civic Hybrid. The battery recharges when the engine is running and when the driver steps on the brakes. Both cars cost a few thousand dollars more than comparable conventional models, but they get more than 45 miles per gallon.
    Prius salesman Dan Scanlan - "Mr. Hybrid" to his co-workers at Koons Toyota - likes to say that gas-electric vehicles represent "the beginning of the end for OPEC," an allusion to the argument that hybrids help reduce the country's dependence on foreign oil. But the former radio reporter's sales pitch is otherwise devoid of political or environmental commentary, focused instead on gee-whiz features, such as how the gas-powered engine shuts down when the car comes to a stop.
    Scanlan also tries to portray hybrid owners as just like everyone else. One moment he's checking the oil of an electric green Prius as Rosenberger looks on, the next he's telling her an anecdote about a hybrid owner who enjoys an extra hour of sleep every day now that he uses the HOV lane.
    If hybrids are to ever gain wider acceptance, automakers will need "to make these cars practical for families with kids," said Jon Berry, senior research director at New York-based market research firm Roper ASW and co-author of "The Influentials," a book about trend-setting consumers.
    That means putting gas-electric engines into larger vehicles, bringing down the cost and improving the somewhat sluggish performance - goals the major automakers are working on. Honda learned some of these lessons last year when it introduced the four-door Civic Hybrid, which quickly outsold its original hybrid, the two-door Insight, even though the Insight runs about 20 miles further on each gallon of gas.
    If Virginia consumers are any barometer, a bill in Congress that seeks to give passenger-less hybrids access to HOV lanes nationwide could further boost interest around major metropolitan areas. (Arizona already exempts hybrid owners from HOV restrictions.)
    For now, hybrids are still on the fringe, a transportation alternative popular with environmentalists, technology buffs and image-conscious movie stars. About a third of all hybrids are bought in California, according to automakers, while sales in the midsection of America remain practically nonexistent.
    "The trendsetters are on the East and West coasts," said Ed LaRocque, Toyota's manager of advanced technology vehicles.
    According to proprietary data collected for Toyota, Prius owners are older, wealthier, better educated and more likely to be married than the rest of Toyota's customers. They are also slightly more likely to have children under age 18. In short, they are very similar to Lexus owners, LaRocque said, which is why the company plans to sell a hybrid version of the Lexus RX 330 by the end of next year.
    The demographic details also suggest Prius owners could be the same trend-setting people written about in "The Influentials," Berry said. The phrase refers to consumers who serve as a proxy for where the mainstream will be in three to five years, he said.
    Last year, domestic hybrid sales grew 77 percent to more than 36,000 vehicles, or less than 1 percent of the entire lineup of cars sold by Toyota and Honda. Executives at Honda and Toyota expect combined U.S. sales to reach nearly 40,000 in 2003.
    Availability varies from dealer to dealer, although the automakers say they'll be able to more quickly meet demand than in past years.
    Even as hybrids become more popular, though, automakers say gas-electric engines are a transitional technology that will eventually be replaced by hydrogen-powered fuel cells. However, the nation is at least a decade or two away from that, as the infrastructure needed to pump up with hydrogen is virtually nonexistent.
    That said, General Motors recently announced plans to roll out a hybrid version of its Saturn Vue SUV in 2005 and Ford plans to unveil a hybrid version of its Escape SUV by the end of the year. DaimlerChrysler has limited plans for a hybrid version of its Dodge Ram pickups.
    By sticking hybrid engines in SUVs, the Big Three appear to be catering to mainstream tastes, rather than vying for consumers intrigued by the ultra-low emissions available in a Prius or Civic Hybrid.
    GM's hybrid engines, for example, will be built with standard lead-acid batteries, which are 25 percent less expensive than the nickel-hydride batteries used in today's gas-electric vehicles, according to the company. While GM's hybrid engine will be about half as fuel-efficient as it could be, executives say it will perform better.
    "You have to find something other than fuel economy if hybrids are to become mainstream in the U.S. auto market," said Lawrence Burns, GM's vice president of research and development.
    At about $20,000 each, the Prius and Civic Hybrid cost several thousand dollars more than comparable vehicles. Offsetting the premium somewhat is a federal law that allows hybrid owners to take a one-time $2,000 tax deduction. That law is set to expire in 2004, although industry officials expect Congress to grant at least a two-year extension. A handful of states offer separate incentives for hybrid buyers, including tax credits and exemptions from emission-control inspections.
    As for savings at the pump, hybrid makers say it could take a decade for motorists to recoup the premium they paid up front.
    Lyle Brown of Spotsylvania County, Va., who totaled his first Prius and then bought another, says breezing past rush-hour traffic jams in the HOV lane is worth the extra money. A 43-year-old commander in the Naval reserves, Brown can now make it to work in under an hour - about a half-hour faster than when he had to carpool to qualify for HOV access.
    But practicality isn't the only reason to own a hybrid, Brown said.
    He then relayed a story about driving through a hip neighborhood in the nation's capital, whereupon another Prius pulled up beside him at a red light. Inside that car was a guy in his 20s with a ponytail behind the wheel and a pretty woman about the same age sitting shotgun.
    Brown, who was wearing his khaki-colored Navy uniform at the time, wasn't feeling particularly cool.
    That quickly changed, Brown said, as "the long-haired guy kind of looks down at his car, then he looks down at my car and he nods."
    Hybrids are powered by a gasoline engine and an electric motor attached to a battery. The electric motor kicks in at low speeds in the Prius and during acceleration in Honda's Civic Hybrid. The battery recharges when the engine is running and when the driver steps on the brakes. Both cars cost a few thousand dollars more than comparable conventional models, but they get more than 45 miles per gallon.

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