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I've been shopping for something to replace my aging Toyota (TM ), and I've come to this conclusion: My next car will be a hybrid. I've driven them all, starting in 1999 with Honda's quirky Insight and Toyota's original Prius, each more of a laboratory curiosity than a practical vehicle. In the past three months, with an eye on ever-loftier gasoline prices, I've driven all the mainstream models again, most for a week at a time and back to back with their conventionally powered counterparts. The landscape has really changed.
Today's hybrids are no longer sops to environmentalism. They represent the biggest shift in automotive technology since the development of the gasoline engine. True, the first-generation hybrids were underpowered -- and ugly. But the new wave, led by pioneers Toyota and Honda (HMC ), is vastly improved. By marrying an electric motor with a conventional power train, hybrids save money at the pump, reduce consumption of foreign oil, cut tailpipe emissions, and maybe even give the car's performance an extra kick.
Now the hybrid is firmly in the automotive mainstream. Waiting lists for some models are six months or more, and Toyota and Honda are selling all they can make. There's a model for just about anyone. And if the current crop doesn't meet your needs -- or your fancy -- just wait. Next year will see a half-dozen new hybrids from such nameplates as Chevrolet, Lexus, Mazda, Nissan, Saturn, and Toyota (NSANY ). Toyota, in fact, says it will eventually offer a hybrid version of virtually every car it sells. All told, 200,000 Americans will buy a hybrid car this year, up from 90,000 in 2004. Who's buying? Mainly baby boomers who are a little more educated and wealthier than those who buy the regular models.
A CAR FOR EVERY DRIVER
Want a gas-thrifty econo-box with four, maybe five, seats and gussied up with all the amenities? The plain-looking Honda Civic Hybrid and the showier Toyota Prius cost about 20 grand each. For a family sedan, there's the Honda Accord Hybrid. If you like the above-it-all seating of a sport-utility, you can consider a hybrid version of the Ford Escape compact SUV, introduced last fall, or the seven-passenger Toyota Highlander, due in June. If price is no object (but social status is), the Lexus RX 400h beats your neighbor's RX 330 in fuel economy, emissions, and performance. It's arriving in dealers' showrooms just about now. (Unless you're one of the more than 13,000 folks who has put down a deposit, you're unlikely to get one much before the end of the year.)
You'll never persuade your dealer to lend you one long enough to get a feel for the car, so I've put together cheat sheets that catalog the differences. Price and fuel economy figures in the tables are for hybrids with an automatic transmission. For the comparison car, I selected the model in the line that comes closest in standard features and priced it without adding any optional equipment.
I didn't bother with a couple of hybrids. The Insight, Honda's two-seater and the first hybrid sold in the U.S., has been largely eclipsed by the hybrid Civic sedans. Only 583 Insights were sold last year. General Motors (GM ) has a big pickup, the Chevy Silverado, that comes in a hybrid version. The fuel savings is scant -- only a mile or two per gallon. The real attraction is four 120-volt outlets that tap the electric generator to power your tools at a construction site or your TV at a campsite.
Hybrids cost more than their conventional counterparts because of the added electric motor and the batteries. That premium ranges from $1,500 on the Silverado pickup to about $4,500 on the Lexus and Highlander SUVs, and about $2,500 to $3,500 on the others. That's only the beginning: The newfound popularity of hybrids has prompted carmakers to perch them at the top of the line, fully loaded with "standard equipment" such as premium cloth or leather upholstery, third-row seats, or four-wheel drive. Want them or not, you'll still have to pay for them to get the hybrid.
If you're looking to make that up by saving a buck or two at the pump, the economics have always been iffy, but soaring gas prices are altering that. Start with tax savings: For me, the federal one-time deduction of $2,000 for clean-fuel cars translates to a combined $623 savings on my 2004 federal and California income taxes. Some states, including Colorado, Connecticut, Maine, New York, and Utah offer more generous tax credits, or they exempt the car from sales taxes. Next, figure out how much you'll save in fuel based on how much you drive and what price you pay for gas. (You can go to mixedpower.com, a Web site for hybrid owners, to find an online calculator for this.) With regular gasoline now averaging more than $2.60 a gallon in California, I would have to drive a Honda Accord for about six years to make up the premium I paid for the hybrid. Higher gasoline prices will shorten that payback period.
You can maximize your savings by picking the hybrid that best matches the kind of driving you do. All hybrids shut down the gasoline engine when you're stopped, either in traffic or at a stoplight. But the Ford (F ) and Toyota systems can use the electric motor to drive the car, so they can go without the gas engine at low speeds. The result? Unlike most cars, the best fuel economy is in city driving instead. That's just the ticket if you spend much of your life in stop-and-go traffic. Honda hybrids, on the other hand, use their electric motor to give a little extra boost to the gas engine, when you need it for accelerating, for example. That lets you get by with a smaller engine so you'll save gas on longer trips at cruising speeds.
It's hard to put a price on some of the perks of driving a hybrid. What would you pay for unlimited access to car-pool lanes, as in Virginia, or not having to feed parking meters, as in San Jose, Calif.? Another intangible: Better fuel economy also means you can go farther between trips to the gas station.
The downside? The batteries that power the electric motor cost thousands. And they'll eventually have to be replaced. Trouble is, hybrids are too new to say when. But right now, they're warrantied, along with the rest of the hybrid system, to go eight years or 100,000 miles.
That's not much of a risk. If you're shopping for a car, or even if you're not, maybe it's time to take a hybrid out for a spin. You'll find yourself driving along the cutting edge of the car business.
By Larry Armstrong