Tuesday, May 17, 2005

DiCaprio, Diaz, the Hybrid Hullabaloo and You

What came before was merely a six year primer for the hybrid vehicle, starting with the introduction of the ingenious Honda Insight roadster in 1999 and Toyota's more conventional Prius sedan in 2000. Up until now, the hybrid was seen as a rare choice for sensitive movie stars, fanatical greens, and liberal retirees. Now, with gas at last cracking $2.15 a gallon (an all time high, though adjusted for inflation, still cheap), hybrids are getting hotter and hotter. Hummer out, hybrids IN!

As of May 4th, the newest "It" vehicle for celebs and the sensitive rich has been available on showroom floors - the Lexus RX400h - and yes, that little "h" stands for you know what. (Lexus is Toyota's luxury-level brand.) And just today, Toyota made a big news splash announcing that it would immediately begin building a hybrid version of the Camry, the most popular sedan in the United States - and that it would build that car in the United States, at its Georgetown, Kentucky, plant.

Honda has been offering a very conventional-looking Civic hybrid for several years, but Toyota's publicity mainstreaming the Camry hybrid will take the acceptance of hybrids on a giant leap to the next level. The hybrid will have a chance to achieve its due - a much larger share of the new car market.

Manufacturers have been resisting the public's demand for small cars because they've been making so much more money selling big SUVs and trucks, and so the hybrid is becoming a classic story of demand and supply.

Car industry spokesmen and market analysts said today that they felt there were at least four factors involved in the ramping up of Toyota's plans to get the Camry hybrid built and to dealers:

1. Sales of the Prius have exceeded ALL expectations, doubling last year. And if the cars were available this year, dealers feel they could sell three times as many Priuses this year as in 2003. Demand has outstripped production, and so hybrids are a quick commercial success, even with the addition of about $4000 to the pricetag of a comparable gasoline-only model. Want one? Get on a waiting list - and pay sticker price.

2. Gas prices are currently 40-50 cents higher than they were just a year ago, averaging about $1.70 then and upwards of $2.10 now. Cynics said gasoline would have to double in price to get people out of their gas guzzlers, but it seems this 20% hike over the $2 threshhold is making a substantial difference. You'll still see some Hummers and other behemoths (super-sized SUVs and trucks) on the road for years to come, but they are already the most despised sort of vehicle on the road.

3. The hybrid has become a status symbol and conversation piece across many socio-economic groups. Its success depends on its moving from status symbol to accepted norm.

4. According to some demographic studies, a higher than usual portion of shoppers for hybrids are especially concerned about environmental and political matters (above and beyond the immediate price of gasoline and the issue of status). Hybrid shoppers have increasingly voiced concerns about this nation's dependence on oil (which makes its security vulnerable) and its involvement in Middle Eastern and South American conflicts which seem bent on procurring the largest oil reserves in the world at the cost of international goodwill, American lives and billions of dollars.

This would not be the first time a category of car was seen as a political statement, but at least the pendulum, post-Hummer hoorah, seems to be swinging in the right direction. Leonardo di Caprio and Cameron Diaz were the first major celebrities to "go national" with their love for their hybrids. Maybe we'll even see Arnold change his tune. We need all the celebrities we can get on the side of "treading lightly."

Tomorrow: more on hybrids and your other car choices, new and used.


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