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DRIVERS HOP ON
HYBRID BANDWAGON

Pablo Weiss was a card-carrying Caddy driver until he decided recently that enough was enough.

Weiss believed he had burned enough fuel in his day. He decided to go hybrid. So Saturday, Weiss, who for three years has driven a Cadillac DeVille Concours, put his now eco-friendly money where his pavement is. He bought a Japanese-made 2004 Toyota Prius, which was named "Car of the Year" last week by Motor Trend magazine. Weiss' car arrives in two months.

"I've never bought a Japanese car in my life, but Detroit won't get its act together," said Weiss, 35. "I'm sick and tired of the oil companies and the unrest in the Middle East.

"I'm buying the hybrid."

So are a lot of people. Automakers are preparing to introduce about a dozen new hybrid models over the next two years, according to J.D. Power and Associates. Hybrid sales are expected to reach 40,000 units this year, but will jump to more than 177,000 annually by 2005.

Toyota Motor Sales USA Inc. decided to up its production plans of 36,000 hybrid cars for 2004 to about 47,000, according to Paul Daverio, Prius' product manager.

Several St. Louis-area customers, including Weiss, are on a waiting list for hybrid cars.

"They're tough to find," Weiss said. There are three hybrid cars available in the United States - Toyota's Prius and two Honda models, the Civic Hybrid and the Insight.

A hybrid car offers better gas mileage by switching between a gasoline or diesel engine and an electric motor. The car recharges itself during the drive and does not have to be plugged in.

The first hybrid electric model in the U.S. market was the Honda Insight in 1999. The Toyota Prius debuted the following year, and the Honda Civic Hybrid went on sale last year. The first sport utility vehicle hybrid, the Ford Escape, will reach dealerships next year.

Still, the hybrids likely won't have a huge impact on the industry for some time. The vehicles are expected to represent about 1 percent of the market by 2005 and reach 2 percent market share by 2008, according to J.D. Power and Associates.

"Sales should increase dramatically as more hybrid vehicles, especially in segments other than compact cars, become available," Walter McManus, J.D. Power and Associates' executive director of global forecasting, said in a news release. "But we still don't expect hybrid-electric vehicles to become mainstream any time soon."

Some automakers have postponed their hybrid production plans, said Jeannine Fallon, a spokeswoman for edmunds.com. The site is an automotive consumer information service. Several companies are waiting to see how the three models on the market do, she said.

The Prius caused a local stir last year when the Missouri Department of Transportation bought several of the cars. Highway Commissioner Bill McKenna said the purchase violated the state's "Buy American" law. The transportation department insisted the purchase was legal under Missouri's Domestic Product Procurement Act because there were no domestic manufacturers of hybrid vehicles.

Experts warn that hybrids aren't the ultimate vehicle. Gabriel Shenhar, Consumer Reports' senior auto test engineer, said consumers aren't saving as much as they might expect.

"It's really hard to realize bang for the buck here," Shenhar said. "What you're getting is a good feeling that if you're driving a hybrid you're driving technology that's advanced and out there. And you're making a statement, which is worth the premium for some people, I guess."

Shenhar's magazine compared the 2003 Honda Civic Hybrid model, which gets 36 miles per gallon and sells for about $21,000, with the 2003 Honda Civic EX, which gets 29 miles per gallon and sells for an average of $17,000.

"It would take you about 20 and a half years in gas savings to pay back the extra money you paid for the hybrid," Shenhar said. (The 2004 models get much better mileage.)

Even the so-called tax break is about to fade away, according to Smart Money.com. In 2002, the IRS gave hybrid owners a $2,000 tax incentive.

In January, that incentive will be cut by 25 percent, to $1,500. In 2005, the amount drops to $1,000 and by 2006 it falls to $500. It will be phased out entirely the following year.

But for Jordan Heiman, 78, an engineer and recovering gas guzzler, it's not about the money. He just got his second Toyota Prius. He bought his first one in 2000. His dealer delivered his second one last month.

"I've been in conservation for three decades," he said. "I've tried to support the environment every way I can. I even convinced three or four of my friends to get one."

Written by: St. Louis Post Dispatch


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