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Published: Friday, 6/11/2004

Area hybrid fans facing long waits

BY GARY T. PAKULSKI
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER

With gas prices near $2 a gallon, interest in fuel-sipping hybrid cars has soared locally. Buyers are agreeing to wait as long as 16 months and requests for information are pouring into dealerships.

"We had a guy drive up from Tennessee on Saturday," recalled Don Ansted, general sales manager at Jim White Toyota in Sylvania Township.

The would-be buyer was disappointed to learn that he had been misled back home by people who told him that the 60-mile-a-gallon Toyota Prius was available on the dealership lot.

"I don't know why he didn't let

his fingers do the walking," said Mr. Ansted.

Demand for hybrid vehicles, which are powered by a combination of gas and electricity, exists throughout the United States. Around the nation, there are reports of huge mark-ups being slapped onto the cars.

Most of the activity surrounds the Prius, whose improved styling and performance starting with 2004 models attracted plenty of interest even before gas prices edged above $2 a gallon, dealers said. But other models, including a hybrid version of the Honda Civic and Honda Insight are attracting new notice.

The first hybrid Civic in three weeks arrived at Brown Honda, Sylvania Township, yesterday. "I don't expect it will be here very long," said sales manager Loren Anderson. The dealership had seven of the cars before fuel prices began to spike.

"Once ... gas prices started to creep toward $2 a gallon, they were history," he said.

The cars sell for $6,000 more than a regular Civic (starting at about $14,000) and get about 10 miles more per gallon than the 38 to 40 miles of a regular Civic under ideal conditions, dealers said.

Terri Lennard, of Samaria, Mich., picked up a red Prius yesterday at Rouen Toyota, Maumee, after placing an order just before Christmas. It wasn't the color she ordered and included more options than she wanted, but she was happy anyway. "It's the first time I've seen one in person," Ms. Lennard beamed.

The elementary school music teacher noted that she decided to buy before gas prices began to skyrocket and said that economy wasn't her primary motivation. "I like the ecology of the car," she explained. "I think we need to get away from fossil fuels and dependence on Middle East oil."

Every car sales executive interviewed reported long waiting lists for the Prius, which carry a sticker price of $21,000 to $26,000 and rebates of just $300. The vehicles are produced in Japan and northwest Ohio dealers are receiving about two a month.

At the Rouen dealership, customers are told they'll likely wait five to six months for delivery, said Mike Dunphy, sales manager. Sales personnel compile a list of people interested but not ready to buy. When a Prius comes in -even though it is pre-sold -they call people on the list to "give them an opportunity to sit in the vehicle and check it out," he added.

At Thayer Toyota, Bowling Green, the wait for the vehicle shot to 16 months from 13 months when gas prices began to break records.

Customers still willingly lay out a deposit of $200 or so. "We know it's going to be 2005, maybe 2006 before they get a vehicle," said Tony Hernandez, general manager. "We don't know the color, the options, or the price. We have to be clear with the customer about what's happening here."

Many buyers teach at Bowling Green State University, and Toyota executives have told Mr. Hernandez that demand for the Prius is especially high in college towns, including Ann Arbor, Mich. and Athens, Ohio.

At Victory Honda, Monroe, even the Honda Insight, which gets up to 70 miles per gallon but which hasn't been especially popular with customers, is attracting attention, said John Obeid, general manager.

"We know it's gas prices," he added. "When prices went down a little this week, we didn't get as many calls."

Several other hybrid vehicles are planned, too, such as a version of the Ford Escape.

Contact Gary Pakulski at:

gpakulski@theblade.com

or 419-724-6082.



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