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ECO-LUXURY

SMALL IS THE NEW BIG. I FIND MYSELF WARMING UP TO THIS IDEA A FEW MOMENTS after meeting Y Fay, the earnest young woman who is the founder and CEO of Eco Limo, the first hybrid limousine company in Los Angeles, or anywhere else for that matter. In a town awash in black Lincoln Town Cars,Y has beguna personal and professional crusade, single-handedly blazing a fresh newtrail within the Los Angeles luxury transport industry. A professional driver for some 18 years, she is a graduate with honors of the Bondurant Professional Driving School, and one of the hybrid auto movements most convicted advocates.

Not yet an eco car owner, I arrived at our introductory meeting in my 1960 Cadillac. Fay, who prides herself on her punctuality and professionalism, is ready and waiting to show me her showpiece, a 2005 black Toyota Prius limousine.Yes, that's correct. A car that I could shoehorn into my own trunk and use as an emergency escape pod is now the Eco Limo calling card. Sadly,I probably use as much fuel changing lanes on the 405 freeway as Fay's Priusdoes on an entire round trip from Santa Monica to LAX. I also can't boast of tearing across the Bonneville Salt Flats at 130.794 miles per hour, as oneother such Toyota Prius recently did, setting a new hybrid class speed record.

Once inside the business end of her car, at 6 feet 2 inches tall, I am as comfortable as when sitting in my father's Lexus. Really. With its finely detailed black finish, matching leather interior, 11-inch chrome rims,tinted windows and interior wood trim, this car is replete with "bling!" DidI just say that?

Maybe I'm getting caught up in this eco nonsense. And why not? Even Fay with her fervent eco-stance confesses to having owned a blue-hued, 1961 Chevrolet Impala. She also notes that her stable includes two Lincoln Town Cars for those diehard customers who still require a larger ride and number themselves among industry magnates, upscale professionals and Detroit CEOs.

But in the same smoggy breath, wouldn't we all love a greater product rangeof hybrids-say,Ferraris, Benzs, Cadillacs and SUVs? The desire is there,especially for the 40+ miles per gallon that the Toyota hybrids offer, butin what many still consider full size, more practical transportation.

While eyeing a new Chrysler 300c Hemi SR and remaining loyal to "The General" and its luxoboat Chevrolet Suburban, I'm curious about Fay'schoice of the Toyota product. After all, this is America, and don't we makesome of the finest upscale, automobiles limo-friendly products this side of Stuttgart and Crewe, and certainly Japan? Apparently, not so much.

Fay waxes apologetic at having chosen to be both practical and ecopatriotic, but the Prius was the obvious choice, being the most available and recognizable of the hybrid offerings.The expression "If it looks like aduck..." lends itself well to a motorcar that, by design aesthetics, is thevery definition of the hybrid idea.And the fact that she can walk into any southland Toyota dealer today and order five more cars for her growing fleet is also a primary sales feature.

Though outwardly compact, the interior of the Prius is surprisingly generous. And the innovative Fay already plans to improve her own cars through a collaborative design effort with famed limo builders Crystal Coach, located in Brea, California. She intends to stretch the factory car platform by about 2 feet, making it more accommodating and creating its own unique identity in the limo world.

Fay had considered the ever popular Honda Accord, but other than its subtle hybrid marking, it seems almost content to downplay its greener roots. Thenew, full-size, Chevy Silverado hybrid pickup also makes a much subtlereco-statement. But the Prius is what it is, and while hauling four sets ofgolf clubs, and actor Todd Torok and three golfing buddies, the car seems tosay, "Fill me up, I dare ya'!"

Like Y, who is out to break new ground and effect positive change while making an environmental statement, actors Torok, Anna Mathias and screen writer Noni White wear their Prius owner's badges with honor. Each of the three had similar things to say about this car: owning one projects aproud eco statement and satisfies a desire that each had to act responsibly toward the environment and their fellow human beings.

And all this time, I thought I was doing my part by shutting off my ignition at the late night drive-thru. But this is LA and size still matters.Those heading to the beach with more than two children and a couple of dogs will find themselves short changed in the space department, and casting their besteco intentions aside, will get back on the SUV bandwagon-for now.

Fay says Ed Welborn, sometime customer and vice president in charge ofdesign for General Motors, has inquired about her hybrids. But according to Fay,Welborn said that there is currently no real interest in aggressively developing a high volume, hybrid product line such as hers. Their presentnon-pursuit of viable and attainable hybrid mass transportation is at oddswith their experimental but successful attempts at providing fuel cell powered public transportation in urban centers like Indianapolis. For theBig Three, the motto still seems to be,"Go big or ride the bus."

The Ford Motor Company has stepped up to the plate with its slightly larger Explorer SUV for eco-friendly soccer moms everywhere.However, with its chuck-wagon ride and a tailgate as unwieldy as a steamer trunk, it seems apoor compromise. The beauty of the Prius hybrid is its golf cart-likeability to operate at lesser speeds using its own stored power, engaging its gasoline engine only at higher speeds. While at a full stop, the Toyota Hybrid collects and stores power in near perpetuity and continues to do soat higher running speeds while engaging its gasoline power plant. So quietis the vehicle at lower speeds that as Torok states, its stealthy approach often startles hapless pedestrians. (Though none have out run him yet.)

Eco Limo's growing list of repeat customers includes professionals from the Pacific Palisades to the South Bay and LAX. Fay recently squired Leonardo DiCaprio and his guests to Hollywood's most glamorous event, the AcademyAwards.Though Fay says that DiCaprio requested her particular ride, as withall of her clients, she guards his privacy, saying only that he was morethan pleased with the service. She adds that all of her clients, bothcelebrity and civilian, are enamored with the idea of her unique ride. Andthey warm up to the savings of the Prius service; it runs at about $37 perhour plus gratuity, as opposed to $75 for the Town Car service.The Prius isa win-win-Eco Limo's decreased operating costs result in large savings forher customers. And the savings that come with the smaller vehicle in no way diminish the high standards of service and excellence that Fay prides herself upon.

While no one can dispute the efficiency of hybrid transportation in limoform or otherwise, in its present state, it still lacks a larger appeal for the car buying public. The current road-going offerings seem limited and don't connote driving or design excitement to automobile enthusiasts.

While Joe Consumer will appreciate the operating savings of future offerings from, say, GM, Chrysler or BMW, others will likely only embrace the hybrid when it means they can run their Aston Martin or Rolls Phantom all afternoonfor the price of a vanilla latte.

But Fay should be applauded for the forward-thinking, earnest eco-sentiment of her Eco Limo venture and its contribution toward industry change. Even seemingly small steps push the hybrid movement toward its long-overdue realization. As the marketplace evolves, one hopes that with improved technology will come upsizing and a variety of automobiles creating evenmore positive change. Until then Y Fay and Eco Limo are pleased to say,"Leave the driving to us!"


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