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Revenge of the Nerdmobiles

Hybrid Cars Suddenly Got Hot in 2004. Did Brains Finally Triumph Over Brawn?

August 29, 2004|Preston Lerner | Preston Lerner last wrote for the magazine about go-kart racing pioneer Faye Pierson.

Scott Shelton is a car guy. make that a Crazed Car Guy. Like me, he's afflicted with a genetic disorder that causes his testosterone level to spike alarmingly when he's in the presence of a high-powered vehicle. But the recent birth of his first child has forced him to reluctantly consider trading his Porsche 911 for a more practical sport utility vehicle or, horror of horrors, a minivan. It's enough, frankly, to make a Car Guy ill.

For the past few months, Shelton has been searching--and searching and searching--for a sensible SUV that won't make him miserable. So I was stunned when he suddenly got jazzed about the Lexus RX 400h, a 2005 sport-ute based on the Toyota Camry, which is Japanese for "incredibly boring family sedan." Stranger still, the Lexus is a hybrid, so called because its conventional gasoline engine is supplemented by an environmentally friendly electric motor. Until recently, hybrids have been sold mostly to earnest save-the-planet types on the basis of minimal tailpipe emissions and superior gas mileage. Car Guys have found them about as appealing as '86 Taurus wagons with 220,000 miles on the clock and rust in the door sills.

"Since when are you interested in hybrids?" I asked him.

"You get more performance and better gas mileage," he said. "I think that's really sexy."

Shelton's not the only one. Once the exclusive object of desire for a tiny niche of techno-geeks and tree-huggers, hybrids have percolated into the mainstream and emerged as legitimate alternatives to traditional gasoline-powered vehicles. As recently as two years ago, they were mostly hype. Last year, they became marginally hip, thanks to all of the A-list celebrities who drove them ostentatiously to Oscar galas and other high-profile events. Now, to the amazement of just about everybody in the automobile industry, they're scorching hot.

The Toyota Prius, with its friendly and distinctive dashboard "Power" button, is the poster child for the hybrid car movement. Despite awkward styling and sluggish performance, the current model is so popular that it commands a premium of as much as $6,000 over the sticker price--if you can lay your hands on one. At most dealerships, the waiting list is three to six months. The original American allocation of 36,000 cars for 2004 has been increased to 47,000, and even that won't come close to curing Prius envy.

"Our dealers tell us that they can sell double what we have today," says Ed LaRocque, national manager of advanced technology vehicles for Toyota Motors Sales, U.S.A. Toyota announced earlier this month that it aims to build 180,000 Priuses for worldwide sales next year, a 50% boost over 2004 production, and is studying possible U.S. production of the fuel-efficient cars.

LaRocque expects sales of the Prius, Honda Insight and hybrid versions of the Honda Civic and Ford Escape to hit 88,000 units this year. Next year, he's forecasting sales of 196,000 hybrids as buyers can choose from more than a dozen models ranging from ho-hum family sedans to spiffy sport-utes to honking full-size pickup trucks. By 2006, if product announcements are to be believed, there should be 20 different hybrids in U.S. showrooms.

"Our forecast calls for as many as half a million hybrids to be sold in 2007," says Walter McManus, executive director for forecasting and analysis at J.D. Power and Associates. "After that, it could go up to a million by 2011. That's out of 17 million vehicles total, so we don't see hybrids, per se, ever being more than a niche vehicle. But being a niche vehicle doesn't mean it's not successful."

You don't have to be a high-powered auto analyst to recognize what's going on here: The war in Iraq and the skyrocketing cost of gas put a new spin--political, social and economic--on the prosaic act of filling up the tank, and hybrids deliver unparalleled fuel economy. The Prius gets 60 miles per gallon in city driving. The ultra-lightweight Insight is rated by the Environmental Protection Agency at a mind-boggling 66 miles per gallon on the highway--the best in the country. More tellingly, the hybrid Civic gets 48 miles per gallon in city driving, while the virtually identical non-hybrid model gets only 32.

As its name suggests, a hybrid is a high-tech mongrel that mixes two (or more) types of power sources. At the moment, the standard combo is a conventional gasoline-fueled internal combustion engine and a small electric motor designed to work together as seamlessly as Astaire and Rogers. The gas engine does the heavy lifting. But it shuts off when the car stops--at a red light, say. (This feels positively spooky the first time you experience it.) The electric motor provides the power to restart the gas engine and drive the car at low speed. The result is lower tailpipe emissions and fuel economy that non-hybrids can't dream of matching.

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