Gas & amp;amp; Electricity Do Mix

by Clint Burgess

It's getting more expensive to fill the tank. And with the pumps primed for summer fuel prices in the $2 per gallon range, it's not going to get much cheaper. One solution to this problem is the new and popular hybrid vehicle. These cars combine fuel-efficient engines with an electric battery for the perfect balance between economy and a more environmentally safe approach to the open road. Base models for the Honda Civic and Toyota Prius hybrids start around $20,000. At this price, can you afford not to have one?

One of the most attractive attributes about the hybrids is that you can go up to 650 miles on a single tank of gas. That alone is reason enough to own one of these new beauties, regardless of the current gas prices. But these are good-looking cars in the traditional sense. That is what some consumers are focused on when getting a new car: Is it going to look good when cruising the boulevard?

Jeff Agnew, new car sales manager at Downtown Honda, says that the hybrids have been out long enough that customers come in knowing what they want. "People come in and ask for them specifically. They are looking for a gas-saving car."

And with the way things have been at the pump over the last six months, business has really jumped in the hybrid arena. "Our sales for hybrids have been record-setting," says Agnew. The way it works with Honda is that the more a dealer sells, the more the factory delivers to them. "The plant had overproduced on hybrids last year, and they approached us with 20 vehicles. We took them and moved them, and in March of this year I was sitting here with 25 hybrids." Now, Agnew is to the point where those 25 are long gone; he's already pre-selling the next shipment of hybrids.

Another attractive trait of the hybrids is that they produce fewer emissions, qualifying them for an income tax break of $2,000 if purchased in 2003 and $1,500 if bought in 2004. Still, even as the savings stack up, there has to be some downside, right?

Maintenance could be that hidden flaw. Hybrids use a combination engine that includes self-charging battery cells, state-of the-art fuel systems and more wires and hoses than I would even know what to do with. Agnew, however, says there's nothing to worry about: "It's nothing really amazing as far as the technology goes. Gas and electric motors have been around for a long time. It was just combining the two that makes it more advanced."

This means customers can get everything taken care of right at the dealership. The main cost underlying hybrid technology is the battery that juices the electric engine. Batteries cost about $2,000 to replace, but in Honda's case, they carry an eight-year warranty, and there haven't been any signs yet that the batteries won't last at least that long.

It's clear that hybrids are the wave of the future, meaning that manufacturers will be offering the technology in a variety of models. Honda will be releasing an Accord hybrid with a V6 engine; the engine will kick down to three cylinders around town but boost back up to all six cylinders when needed. Ford and GM are reportedly planning to launch some hybrid SUVs later this year.

If gas and electricity is a good mix for you, there's about a 45-day wait for a hybrid at Downtown Honda. Check with other dealers for details on other models.

Publication date: 6/24/04

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