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Published: Friday, 6/8/2007

Gas prices steer drivers to hybrids

BY JON CHAVEZ
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER

Gas prices hovering consistently at the $3-plus mark are pushing local car buyers into dealer showrooms in search of hybrid gas-electric vehicles.

Interest is running high for nearly all hybrid vehicles, local dealers report, but Toyota benefits the most, selling three-fourths of the U.S. hybrids this year.

"I figure if gas is averaging over $3 now and was averaging over $2 last year, it's only going to go up. It'll probably be over $4 next year," said Bill Fouke, of the Toledo suburb of Oregon and a commercial fisherman who bought a black Toyota Prius this week.

After getting his new car, which he bought for its fuel-miser properties, he promptly gave it to his wife, Sharon. She is living at the couple's summer home in Indiana and faces an 80-mile round-trip commute daily.

Whereas car buyers used to make weekly inquiries about hybrids, area dealers said they now get daily calls.

Jim White Toyota had its best month in May, selling 22 hybrids, said general manager Dave Wittenmyer. Previously, it averaged 8 a month, he said.

Mr. Fouke got the last of the hot-selling Priuses on the Jim White lot. A small shipment of the vehicles, which can average more than 50 miles per gallon, is due this month, but most are spoken for, Mr. Wittenmyer said.

"When you have fuel now as a major bill each month, people think about that a lot," said Jeff Dickson, a salesman at Jim White.

"Originally you had the tree-huggers interested, then people who wanted a new toy, but now you're seeing the value shopper who wants a great car with little maintenance and great mileage," he said.

There have been 147,820 hybrids sold in the United States through May, with Toyota capturing 74 percent of sales, according to the Electric Drive Transportation Association, an industry advocate. The Prius accounted for 52 percent of all sales.

Last year, 246,642 hybrids were sold, meaning sales in 2007 are on pace to exceed last year.

Cars.com, a large Web site devoted to buying and selling new or used cars, said this month that user searches for information on hybrid vehicles increased 50 percent in May from April.

"The more that gas prices rise, the more consumers start doing their homework on fuel-efficient cars available on the market," said Patrick Olsen, managing editor of the site.

The top three cars users sought information on were Toyota Camry Hybrid, Ford Escape Hybrid, and Prius.

Not all hybrids are in high demand.

Mike Sager, general manager at Mathews Ford in Oregon, said local interest in the Ford Escape Hybrid, which is a sport-utility vehicle, has been low.

"We've not been selling any hybrids, which is strange because in the Detroit region, they're very hot," he said.

A partial explanation, he said, is the fuel saving. The Escape hybrid gets 32 miles per gallon in the city and 29 mpg on the highway. But the SUV costs $25,000, so it would take a while to recoup that gasoline savings, he said.

Honda said this month it will discontinue its Accord hybrid because of lack of demand.

Loren Anderson, general manager at Brown Honda, wasn't surprised.

With a $31,000 price tag, the mileage for a 6-cylinder Accord hybrid didn't average much more than that for the 4-cylinder standard Accord, which could nearly $10,000 less.

"It was a no-brainer," Mr. Anderson said.

However, buyers have been much more interested in Honda's Civic hybrid, which costs about $23,000, gets 50 mpg, and comes with a $2,100 tax incentive. And with higher gas prices, it's a far easier sell.

"I've sold two or three in the last week," Mr. Anderson said. "With gas prices rising, hybrids are starting to disappear."

Although he won't be driving his new Prius, Mr. Fouke said gas prices were killing his budget.

He was driving to and from Lake Erie in a Chevy Silverado truck that got 15 miles per gallon. "I've been burning $700 to $800 a month in gas," he said.After giving his wife the Prius, he took the smaller Chevy S-10, which gets 25 mpg, that she had been using.

Contact Jon Chavez at:

jchavez@theblade.com

or 419-724-6128.



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