BOX More drivers turn to hybrids as gas prices climb

By Bob Freund

Post-Bulletin, Rochester MN

This year’s jump in gasoline prices likely has brought new believers in hybrid cars and trucks into auto dealerships.

Those new prospects are building on already significant demand for the fuel-stingy hybrids, which typically are powered by both an electric motor and combustion engine.

Hayes Piker, sales manager for Rochester Toyota dealership, sells the most popular hybrid model in 2007, the Toyota Prius. The compact car has drawn buyers. "It’s (been) pretty constant," he said Tuesday. "Of course, when the gas prices spiked ... the demand went up considerably."


Fact is, the entire hybrid market has been strong. Auto data research firm R. L. Polk & Co. this week announced that registrations of new hybrid vehicles of all types in the United States rose 38 percent in 2007, compared to the prior year. Buyers picked up 350,298 hybrids last year.

"The coast continues to dominate the hybrid segment, though we continue to see gains in the Midwest as fuel prices hit home for the ‘manufacturing belt’ states," Lonnie Miller, R.L. Polk’s director of industry analysis, said in a written release.

Chevrolet and its cousin GMC lines are comparatively new to the hybrid market. But it may take some time and marketing for offerings, such as the redesigned Malibu, which is a limited hybrid, and the forthcoming full hybrid version of the Silverado pickup, to catch on.

Substantial buying interest probably will not happen "until you get it out and available to the public," said Mark Williamson, sales manager for USEM Chevrolet in Austin.

So far, "I see no interest ... whatsoever," he said.

But Williamson is seeing activity with fuel-efficient gas-powered autos, such as the popular Chevrolet Aveo, rated at 34 mpg in highway driving.

"The trend right now obviously is to get rid of one of the two SUVs in the driveway and get something that gets 30 miles a gallon," he said, "and you certainly can’t blame the public for that," he said.

The Prius booked 51.2 percent of registrations of new hybrids during 2007, R. L. Polk’s report said.


Piker had one unsold Prius on the lot Tuesday, but also was taking orders. "Demand has outweighed supply for the last two months now. Right now, we’re basically selling vehicles that are in shipping status," he said.

"I think we’re up 30 percent this month (form a year earlier) in Prius sales," he said. Toyota also sells hybrid models of the Camry car and the Highlander sport utility vehicle, which are in stock.

But the popular Prius is far from the only hybrid attracting attention. Demand for the Saturn Vue, a small SUV, is far outstripping availability. In fact, "I don’t think we can get any more (hybrid) Vues until 2009 (model year)," Saturn of Rochester sales manager Chad Duellman said. Those 2009s will be available this fall.

The Toyota Highlander and Ford Escape "share leadership positions" among hybrid sports utility vehicles, R. L. Polk reported.

New introductions also are gaining attention. Chevrolet just released a dual-mode hybrid model of its large SUV, the Tahoe, a month ago. "We just had a customer (looking at a Tahoe) ... a half-hour ago," said Greg House, owner of House Chevrolet in Stewartville.

Because of its electric motor, "Taking off, it’s like driving a golf cart," he said. It shifts over to the gasoline engine when pulling power is needed.

Top 5 hybrid states, 2007, with percent of U.S. hybrid registrations

1. California, 26.1 percent


2) Florida, 5.5 percent

3) New York, 5 percent

4) Texas, 4.9 percent

5) Washington, 3.7 percent

Source: R. L. Polk & Co.

What To Read Next
Get Local