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Chalk one up for hybrids

Is our love affair with big SUVs on the rocks? At one dealership, more buyers are turning to fuel-efficient cars.

March 26, 2003|Shawn Hubler | Times Staff Writer

PALO ALTO — A storm was rolling in, rattling the big sign at the gas station. Two-thirty a gallon, it said, give or take a tenth of a cent. At the Toyota lot, the salespeople were busy, and not just making sure all the car windows were rolled up.

"Well, let's see, so far this week?" murmured a tired Eric Doebert, peering through spectacles at his handwritten sales log. "Looks like we sold one, two, three -- four Priuses."

He cleared his throat, considering the role of homely subcompact hybrids as small, shiny barometers of geopolitical fear. Inventory was down to a handful of the boxy little autos, poised at the back of the lot between the vans and the truck section. Aqua ice. Silver gray. Hanging back there like nerds at a sock hop. There was a time when they were in demand by just about no one. That's not the case anymore.

"Sales are running about double," said Doebert, business development manager and point man for his dealership's hybrid sales team. His smile was rueful. "We don't really talk to the customers about the reasons. They're sad, you know? So are we."

Mixed feelings have come with the territory as the pendulum of public opinion finally swings back toward fuel efficiency. Alternative power finally seems to be getting some love from America's SUV-fixated public.

There are only a few hybrid models on the market, with several more in development. Hybrid cars combine gasoline engines and electric motors to boost mileage and cut emissions. Sales of Honda's year-old Civic Hybrid were up 35% in February from the prior month. Prius sales rose 22.5% nationally between January and February. The aggregate sales numbers are small -- only a couple of thousand -- but signal a broader jump in interest in non-guzzlers; sales of the Toyota Corolla also rose last month by 58.5%.

That's the good news. The bad news, of course, is that the interest is being fueled by yet more war in the oil fields. Who prefers that? Not Doebert, who has spent the last three years trying to sell Silicon Valley on his gizmos' cleanliness, cool technology and, yes, moral superiority.

As recently as two months ago, his job was largely about Earth Day demos and making nice with the local chapter of the electric-auto association. Now Doebert -- who came to car sales thinking the job would be a stopgap after being laid off from a computer company in the late 1990s -- oversees the top hybrid sales team in the nation's top hybrid market. Typically, he and his colleagues sell 15 Priuses a month; this month, they've sold about 30. Life would be grand were it not for the tragic circumstances.

"Normally," he said, wincing, "the car-buying experience isn't driven by bad news."

On the blustery day that Doebert took time to tote up his week's sales, more than one kind of climate change was in the air. The war countdown had started; it was dominating the headlines. Even at midday under dark clouds, customers who had once scorned small cars were blowing in to inquire about mileage and discounts. ("I sold a silver-gray Prius to a guy just the other day, side airbags and the 6-CD changer, wanted it to commute in, mileage on his Beemer was killin' him," offered salesman Ruben Alvarez.)

In the chrome-and-glass showroom, the smell of new cars wafting around them, Doebert's peers watched the tire kickers outside and talked current events.

"What bothers me is how quickly the antiwar liberals here seem to have forgotten 9/11," proclaimed the head of used car sales, a Desert Storm veteran named Chris Khan whose computer screensaver featured a "navyseals.com" logo and a handgun slide show.

"Don't say 'liberals,' " shot back a passing computer technician, his smile only half-friendly. "Say 'concerned citizens.' "

"As you can see, we have micro-cultures even here," said Doebert, who graduated from UC Berkeley in 1984 with an economics degree and still parts his gray hair down the middle. "But we don't politicize it, right, guys? Because we're gentlemen."

The technician left the room. The group took a deep breath.

"All you gotta do is check out the auctions to know what's coming," Khan said, more neutrally. "The other day, SUVs were going for four, five grand behind book." In other words, selling for substantially less than their wholesale value, because "people know they're gas guzzlers and don't want 'em," Khan said.

On this, at least, the salesmen were in agreement. Doebert's theory was that "gas price shock seems to be setting in." This, all felt, explained the appearance of customers like Nancy Shuet, a 50-year-old electronics saleswoman from Sunnyvale who replaced her old Honda with a hybrid.

"With gas at $2 a gallon, do you want 25 miles per gallon or 50? It's like, hell-o-o," she said.

And Sidney Simon, an 86-year-old retired chemist who traded his 10-year-old Camry.

"I figured at my age, I deserve one more new car," said Simon, who lives in Palo Alto and believes the spike in gas prices has been "real robbery, and far worse than what happened in the 1970s."

He paid $18,000 for a white Prius, which gets about 50 miles per gallon.

"What's happening now is going to be bad for everyone," he worried, even as he exulted in the attention he was getting from neighbors who saw the new car in his driveway.

In the showroom, the salesmen bustled, shaking hands, making good eye contact, monitoring the horizon.

That weekend, just before St. Patrick's Day, Doebert's hybrid sales team would sell three cars.

At the time, it seemed like a lot. Now, though, they're selling one a day.

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