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Published: Friday, 5/7/2004

Soaring gasoline prices drive interest in hybrid cars, area dealers report

BY ELIZABETH A. SHACK
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Hybrid or Hummer?

Climbing gas prices are leading some shoppers to hunt for fuel-efficient vehicles, but others say the cost of fuel doesn't really matter.

The cost of gasoline can add a significant amount to a driver's expenses, says the American Automobile Association, which advises buyers to look at gas mileage when they're shopping for a vehicle.

"You always have to consider fuel economy," said Dean Sullivan, who was shopping with his wife, Linda, at Brown Automotive on Central Avenue.

They were looking for a small SUV, hoping to find something that gets at least 18 to 25 miles per gallon, he said.

Even on a short trip, gas mileage can make a noticeable difference in fuel expenses.

Picking up a passenger at Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport and returning to Toledo, a 100-mile round trip, would cost the driver of a Ford Taurus $5.91 in regular gas at Wednesday's average price of $1.832 a gallon. At some stations, it hovered near $1.90.

Try it in a Jeep Liberty and pay $8.72, or make the trip in a Honda Civic Hybrid and pay only $4.07.

Over five years, the differences become significant.

The AAA estimates that a person driving a Hummer H2 for five years will pay $11,738 for fuel, while the driver of a Ford Taurus would pay less than half that, or $5,059.

"If the gas mileage isn't

good on the car, I think that's outrageous," said Wilma Bender, examining a Buick Regal at George Ballas Buick GMC on Central Avenue. "I drive quite a few miles to work and it adds up."

She's thinking of buying a sedan with high gas mileage but doesn't want to try a hybrid because they're relatively new and she doesn't know much about cars.

"I'm kind of afraid to risk it," she said.

Hybrids combine a normal gas engine with a battery-powered electric motor. The car can run on either one, turning off the gas engine at stop lights, or both at the same time, using the electric motor to boost acceleration. Regenerative braking recharges the battery when the brake pedal is pressed.

Jim White Honda in Maumee has had more phone calls and people stopping by to look at the hybrids in the past three weeks, Brian Gibson, new car sales manager, said.

"There's no doubt about it," he said. "The interest in the hybrids has increased."

Sales have gone up, too, from about five hybrids a month.

"We can have a big month and do seven or eight now," he said.

Sales of Hummers have fallen by around a third in the past two months, said Jim Schenk, new car manager for Hummer and Chevrolet at Ed Schmidt in Maumee.

"It's affected all the large sport utility vehicles," he said.

In a good month, they would sell about 20 Hummers, but in the last couple months have sold probably 10 to 15, he said.

For some Hummer buyers, the cost of gas isn't a problem.

"I don't think [fuel prices] will affect them real hard until it hits 2 bucks a gallon," Mr. Schenk said.

That's already happened in California.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration, a statistical agency of the Department of Energy, says gas prices could climb even higher in the coming weeks as demand increases with the season.

Some vehicle shoppers are hoping that prediction is wrong.

Fuel economy wasn't on Vincent Andrews' list of things to consider as he peered through the window of a gray Lexus. He plans to buy an SUV for the sense of safety, he said.

He said he expects the cost of gas to come back down faily soon.

"Personally, I don't think it's going to stay there that long," he said.

Contact Elizabeth A. Shack at:

eshack@theblade.com

or 419-724-6050.



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