The Tennessean on Sunday, May 23, 2004 presented the following article:
SAM SIMPKINS / STAFF
Ralph Coleman of Nashville is one of a growing number of people ponying up to buy gas-electric hybrid vehicles. In Tennessee, 207 people bought them between January and April of this year, according to R.L. Polk & Co., an automotive research firm. Coleman says he liked the technology and the superior fuel efficiency of his new Toyota Prius.
Nashvillians snapping up hybrid cars
By NAOMI SNYDER
At Beaman Toyota in Nashville, anyone wanting to test-drive the new hybrid electric-gasoline Prius will be out of luck. Ditto down in Murfreesboro at Neill-Sandler Toyota.
The Japanese company underestimated demand for the fuel-efficient vehicles in the United States, a country known around the world for having invented super-sized French fries and gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles for suburbanites.
But Toyota dealers can't keep the new Prius in stock. Beaman Toyota in Nashville now has a seven-month waiting list of buyers, sales manager Paul Carana said.
''All the dealers are begging for them,'' Carana said.
Technophiles and drivers looking for better mileage and an environmentally friendly vehicle are slapping down deposits on hybrids without getting a chance to drive them first. But there still are some questions that may keep other buyers away, including concerns about their true gas mileage and the vehicles' expense.
Rising demand for hybrids comes as escalating fuel prices are drawing national attention.
Nashville reached a record high average of $1.92 a gallon for unleaded gasoline by Friday, not adjusted for inflation, according to AAA Auto Club South in Nashville. The average U.S. price is $2.02 per gallon.
Gas prices aside, what's more likely driving sales of hybrids is that the vehicles on the market have gotten better and roomier. There's also a $1,500 federal tax deduction available to hybrid buyers for 2004 vehicles. (It was $2,000 last year.)
Hybrid vehicle sales rose 25.8% in 2003 from the year before. Last year, 43,435 of the vehicles were registered in the United States, according to automotive research firm R. L. Polk & Co. J. D. Power & Associates estimates demand will reach half a million hybrids annually by mid-decade.
Hybrids combine the internal combustion engine of conventional vehicles with the battery and electric motor of electric vehicles to reduce fuel consumption, the U.S. Department of Energy says.
Sales will increase as manufacturers make the hybrids available in a wider variety of models, especially as SUVs, said Mark Pauze, analytic consultant for R.L. Polk.
Hybrid versions are planned for the Toyota Highlander, Ford Escape, Chevy Silverado, GMC Sierra, Dodge Ram Pickup, Honda Accord and Lexus RX 400.
Honda was the first to sell a hybrid passenger car for consumers, rolling out the compact Insight in December 1999. Now, its larger Honda Civic Hybrid is the top-selling hybrid in the United States, with the Toyota Prius close behind, according to R.L. Polk.
It's not that huge amounts have been sold.
From January through April of this year, 23,031 hybrids have been sold. By comparison, 130,829 Toyota Camrys were sold during the same period.
The heart of Toyota's problem is that it isn't making enough of the vehicles. The manufacturer boosted its 2004 Prius production by 31% to 47,000 vehicles that will be available in the United States. It also raised the price by $300 in April to a base price of $20,810.
Crest Honda in Nashville reports that it has hybrids available for test drive. The local dealership gets three or four Civic Hybrids per month and sells each one right away, general sales manager Bob Cook said.
Honda is phasing out the Insight, but the hybrid Accord will come out in the fall, Cook said.
Although the Civic Hybrid is less than 5% of Crest's total sales, Cook expects hybrids to grow to 25% of his sales within five to six years.
''People are loving it,'' Cook said. ''They are very quiet, and they've got good (fuel) economy.''
The Toyota Prius has gotten more attention of late and was named Consumer Reports' top pick in the green car category in its April issue.
One of the new buyers is Ralph Coleman, a German native who lives in Nashville.
Coleman bought a Prius three weeks ago despite not being able to test-drive it and having to wait three months to get it. He plunked down a deposit and eventually paid $26,000 for a fully loaded vehicle with a satellite mapping system and voice-activated commands. ''It's really hard to find something wrong with this car,'' said the 49-year-old help desk technician for Nashville Wraps, a mail-order company.
He took it on a drive through mountains in Georgia, where he says he climbed the hills just fine. The car gives him a dashboard mileage display, which shows he gets almost 60 miles per gallon.
Compare that to the popular Toyota Camry, still relatively high on the mileage factor, which gets 33 miles per gallon on the highway and costs $18,560.
However, not everyone reports mileage as strong as Coleman's.
The EPA mandates that dealers advertise only the EPA-tested mileage results, and the EPA may not always be right.
Automotive News reported the Prius got as few as 39 miles per gallon in tests run by the magazine. The Honda Civic got 37 miles in city driving and 44 miles on the highway, the publication reported.
A Toyota spokeswoman disputed the Automotive News report, saying Toyota owners report an average of 44.76 miles per gallon.
But spokeswoman Cindy Knight did say driving style could be even more a factor in actual mileage than it would be for gasoline-only cars. Heavy brake use and rapid acceleration can hurt mileage on the hybrids just as they do on regular cars.
In an interesting twist, the mileage the cars typically get in the city is better than on the highway, because hitting the brakes actually recharges the battery on the electric motor.
The other potential drawback of the hybrids is that other cars, such as those with diesel engines, can get just as good gas mileage without the worries of having to replace a battery pack several years down the road.
Toyota says that if the battery had to be replaced today, it would cost $2,000.
But the downside of the diesel engines is that they pollute more.
That appears to be a motivating factor for a lot of hybrid owners.
Tom John, a rheumatologist at Saint Thomas Hospital, bought a Prius about three months ago.
''I just liked the environmental aspect of it,'' he said. ''There's a bit of an mpg nerd in me, I suppose, but it gives you a good feeling to know you're driving what's the least disruptive for the environment.''