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Published: Tuesday, 10/6/2009

Hybrids less costly at pump, not shop

BY LARRY P. VELLEQUETTE
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER

It has been a decade since the 2000 Honda Insight and later the 2001 Toyota Prius began quietly traversing America's roadways, endearing themselves and their groundbreaking technology to environmentalists everywhere.

But even though sales of hybrids peaked, along with gas prices, more than a year ago, automakers keep bringing hybrid models to market - even as owners find that their vehicles can incur costs away from the gas pump.

If there have been two knocks holding back hybrid ownership, they have been the vehicles' repair issues and their premium price tags.

Fixing hybrids can be different, said Jim Raber, service manager at Rouen Toyota on Conant Street in Maumee.

"With some things, it's like a normal car, but with some things it's not," he said. "When you get into diagnosing it and doing any kind of repair, if you don't know exactly what you're doing, that's when you get into trouble."

Pricewise, some hybridized vehicles cost as much as $5,000 more than their gas-powered counterparts.

"What a lot of car companies are realizing is they have to get hybrids to where the costs are about the same" as their internal-combustion-powered equivalents, Karl Brauer, editor-in-chief of Edmunds.com, which tracks the automotive industry, said.

Honda has made some progress, lowering its entry-level 2010 Insight to less than $20,000, thereby forcing Toyota to lower its 2010 Prius to about $21,000.

Lately, some insurance firms have begun to discount policies for hybrid vehicles. Although hybrids can be more expensive to fix, studies indicate hybrid vehicle owners are less likely to be in collisions.

In Ohio and Michigan, Farmers Insurance, Travelers Insurance, and GEICO all offer some form of discount to their customers who own hybrid vehicles. The discount can be as much as 10 percent.

Hybrid vehicles do present a specific danger when involved in accidents. Their high-voltage drive systems can result in a potentially fatal discharge to emergency workers if the systems aren't disabled properly.

Emergency responders undergo special training in how to safely handle accidents involving hybrid vehicles, but recognizing vehicles with an electrified powertrain can be difficult. Unlike the distinctive Prius, hybrid versions of the Ford Escape sport utility vehicle and Honda Civic don't look much different than their gas-powered counterparts.

This fall, as 2010 vehicles begin showing up at dealerships, there will be nearly two dozen vehicles featuring hybrid technology. Though varying widely in size and in features and ranging from $19,800 to more than $106,000, the vehicles all use stored electricity to drive the wheels.

"Hybrids have gone mainstream in terms of the knowledge of them among potential customers," Mr. Brauer said.

Although sales have fallen for hybrids - as they have for almost all other vehicles over the last two years, "Manufacturers feel we're only one serious energy shortage away from massive demand [for hybrids]. And they want to be ready with something in the marketplace," Mr. Brauer said.

More than 1.5 million hybrid vehicles have been sold in the United States since 1999, when the first Insight was sold. More than 1.1 million of the hybrids sold in the United States were manufactured by Toyota Motor Co., whose Prius continued to evolve even as other manufacturers dropped - or never began - hybrid efforts. Nearly 253,000 other hybrids sold in the United States were manufactured by American Honda Motor Corp., including the Ohio-made Civic hybrid.

Ford Motor Corp. leads domestic manufacturers in hybrid sales with more than 112,000 vehicles, including hybrid versions of its Escape SUV and Fusion sedan. General Motors Co. has the most hybridized vehicles on the market with eight, but so far has sold only about 23,000 of the vehicles.

Contact Larry P. Vellequette at:

lvellequette@theblade.com

or 419-724-6091.



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