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INCREASING INTEREST IN
HYBRID-ELECTRIC CARS

Leonardo has one, as do Cameron, Gwyneth and a slew of other top Hollywood celebrities.

But stand back A-listers, because the price of gasoline is prompting more average Joes and Janes to trade in their sports cars and SUVs for fuel-efficient and environmentally conscious hybrid cars -- vehicles powered by an electric motor and a conventional engine working in tandem.

Canyon Country residents Larry and Sharon Cummings bought a Prius, Toyota's hot-selling hybrid, just over a month ago.

When asked why, Larry was blunt: "Look at the price of gas lately," Cummings said Saturday on a cell phone as the couple enjoyed a car trip around Northern California. "It's the greatest thing in the world. We left home on Wednesday and we've gone about 750 miles. We're only on our second tank, and we still have half a tank left."

Like the Toyota Prius, which gets 52 miles per gallon in the city and 45 on the highway, the Honda Insight and Honda Civic Hybrid are powered by electricity at low speeds. As speeds increase, the gasoline engine kicks in, simultaneously recharging the batteries.

Jimmy Camuso, sales manager at Power Honda of Valencia, said the dealership's biggest challenge lately is trying to keep the hybrids in stock.

"Six months ago, we very rarely sold a hybrid," Camuso said. "Now, with gas prices through the roof, I can't keep them in stock. I'd say that of every 10 phone calls we get now, two or three are for the hybrids."

Camuso said interest in the cars has grown in proportion with soaring gas prices. He said a Civic hybrid driver can go 640 miles on one tank of gas.

"In September, we had nine (hybrids). Jan. 1, we had eight," he said Saturday. "February, we had seven. Today, nothing. That gives you an idea how popular these cars have become in the last few months. These gas prices are really changing the way people think about buying cars."

Cummings, a manager at an electronics retailer, decided to sell his 1991 Camaro Z-28 when he noticed gas prices climbing.

What began as a search for a car with better gas mileage -- his Camaro got 17 miles per gallon -- ended with his purchase of a teal-colored Prius.

He doesn't miss his Z-28?

"I wouldn't say that. When you feel the need for speed, well ...," he said. "But our new car gets 46 miles to the gallon. If I had my Camaro, right now I'd be buying the high octane at what, $2.50 a gallon? (The Prius) has a gauge that tells you how much mileage you're getting. I watch that thing every five miles. It's great."

Chevrolet is getting on the bandwagon, too, with a hybrid version of the Silverado expected next year. Claiming 15 to 20 percent better fuel economy, General Motors will unveil a hybrid version of its Sierra pickup in 2004.dlim!

Written by: Amy Raisin, LA Daily News


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