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Prices Soar for Hybrids With Rights to Fast Lane

Some dealers are getting as much as $4,000 over sticker for cars that now have carpool privileges.

August 27, 2005|John O'Dell | Times Staff Writer

Prices for hybrid cars, which finally started to ease this summer, are soaring again thanks to rising gasoline prices, year-end shortages and legislation allowing a small number of gas-electric hybrids to use California's carpool lanes with only the driver on board.

Many Southland Toyota dealers are charging -- and getting -- premiums of $4,000 over the manufacturer's suggested retail price on the Prius, the most popular of the three models allowed into carpool lanes.

Some Honda dealers are getting similar premiums for their carpool-eligible models, the hybrid Civic sedan and the two-seat Insight.

The premiums, of course, are being charged by the dealers who actually have the cars: Many are out of stock and have pre-sold every one they expect to receive for the next three or four months.

Gasoline prices hovering at or near record highs are one culprit, even though the price of a hybrid -- about $3,000 more than a comparable gasoline-engine car before dealership markups -- makes it difficult to make up the difference on fuel savings alone.

Shortages are another, and dealers say they are profound. Toyota and Honda are about to release 2006 models and shipments of '05 Priuses and Civic hybrids have slowed considerably.

Many dealerships report waiting lists of four or more months for people unwilling to pay a premium.

And all that is being aggravated by a carpool-sticker shortage scare that has helped deplete dealers' hybrid inventories.

"We're all out," said Gen Balouev, a sales manager at Norm Reeves Honda of Huntington Beach. "You have to wait, or pay a premium if you can find one."

The new carpool legislation kicked off a surge in demand about two weeks ago, he said.

"People think they're going to run out of stickers soon, so a lot of people aren't willing to wait and they're paying a premium to get a car now," said Jesse Toprak, senior analyst at online automotive information service Edmunds.com.

But the rush may be premature. The legislation authorized 75,000 special solo-occupant carpool stickers for hybrids, but there aren't that many hybrids in California at present.

According to figures from the Department of Motor Vehicles, only 57,000 hybrids have been registered in the state, including several thousand that don't deliver sufficient fuel economy to qualify for the stickers. As of Thursday, the DMV had received only 18,206 sticker applications, and the requests "seem to be leveling off," said spokesman Steve Haskins.

But while there may be no basis for panic about carpool stickers, pricing has been affected by the rush.

"Many customers are telling us the carpool lane is the main reason for buying now," said Dianne Whitmire, Carson Toyota's director of Internet sales. She charges a $2,000 premium to anxious Prius buyers unwilling to wait for supplies to increase once deliveries of the 2006 models begin in November.

The region's 75 Toyota dealerships typically share a Prius allotment of about 450 cars every two weeks, Whitmire said. The last shipment, two weeks ago, was only about half that.

"There just aren't enough to go around," she said.

Offsetting the premiums on the Prius are SUVs, whose popularity wanes further with the increase in gasoline prices.

Whitmire's dealership has 18 Toyota 4Runner SUVs with V8 engines that it is offering at steep discounts. "If I sell a 4Runner with a $32,000 sticker price for $24,000, nobody writes a story about that," she said. "People just say, 'Wow! What a deal.' "

Base price for a standard Prius is $21,515 and Edmunds' pricing guide shows that the average selling price around the country last month was $24,716.

"We strongly urge our dealers not to mark up the [price], but they are independent businesses and we can't control pricing," said Sam Butto, a spokesman for Torrance-based Toyota Motor Sales USA Inc.

Not everyone charges extra. At Northridge Toyota, for example, general sales manager Simon Greenberg is emphatic: "We don't do that, absolutely not."

Alas, Greenberg also doesn't have a Prius in stock, and the handful he is expecting to get from Toyota next month already are spoken for.

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