With gasoline prices soaring, Valley motorists are taking a closer look at hybrid vehicles that are powered by both a gasoline engine and an electric motor.
The prices are higher than comparable conventional vehicles, but the savings in gasoline consumption is substantial. Lower tailpipe emissions are an added bonus. And some models are available immediately at the showrooms.
Most of the available hybrid vehicles were demonstrated Tuesday at a meeting of the Clean Cities Coalition at Gateway Community College in Phoenix, where members of the organization that promotes alternativefuel vehicles were briefed on the latest developments.
"Electric vehicles aren’t done. They’ve just evolved into hybrids," said Bill Sheaffer, executive director of the coalition.
Nationally, about 200,000 Americans are expected to buy hybrid sedans and SUVs this year, up from 90,000 last year, the group estimates.
The top seller is the Toyota Prius, a sleek second-generation model with digital gauges and touch-screen controls that was designed from the ground up to be a hybrid vehicle. Dealers say there is a waiting period of several weeks for those who want to buy them.
Honda offers hybrid versions of its existing Accord and Civic sedans, while Ford offers a hybrid model of its Escape sport utility vehicle and Gen- eral Motors has developed a hybrid version of its Chevy Silverado pickup truck.
Just arriving on the scene this month is a hybrid Lexus RX 400h SUV, the first from a premium brand. Coming later this year will be the Toyota Highlander and Mercury Mariner SUV hybrids.
Hybrid models of the Honda Civic and Accord are available without a wait on the lots at Showcase Honda in Phoenix, said sales representative Steve Guberman.
He said sales have been "sluggish" for Honda’s version of the technology, but interest has increased in the past few months as gasoline prices have risen sharply.
He attributed the buyer reluctance to the fact the technology is new. "Many people hesitate to buy the first of anything," he said.
"They want the bugs to be worked out first."
Honda has produced hybrid vehicles since 2000, when the company introduced the Insight as the first gas-electric hybrid available in the United States.
The Civic hybrid became available last year and the Accord hybrid early this year.
Prices for the hybrid models are about $3,000 more than the comparable conventional models, said Matt Docamto, another Showcase representative.
He expects the price will drop as mass production steps up and more competing models enter the market.
Hybrids get better gas mileage because an electric motor supplements the gasoline engine, helping to supply power as the vehicle is accelerating or climbing hills.
Also, the gasoline engine shuts down when the vehicle stops at a traffic signal, further conserving gasoline.
Hybrids use a technology called regenerative braking that captures energy from the spinning wheels as the car is rolling to a stop and recharges the batteries. No plug-in is necessary.
Brent Larsen, general manager of Superstition Springs Lexus, said his dealership received its first hybrid RX on Saturday, which he is using as a demonstration model.
The dealership has taken 45 deposits for advance orders, and the delivery wait is three to five months, he said.
The $50,000-plus price tag is about $5,000 above similarly equipped conventional Lexus SUVs, he said.
"We’ve had a few people who have said the price is too much and have bought a conventional model," he said. "But generally the reaction has been very positive."
Larsen said hybrids make the most sense for in-town driving, where the gasoline savings is the greatest because the electric motor gets more use than in highway driving.
Meanwhile, Gateway Community College has launched a program to train mechanics to maintain hybrid vehicles.
The school has been certified for Toyota technical training and will start a Honda program in the fall, said instructor Steve Folks.
So far, he said maintenance problems do not appear any greater for hybrids than for conventional vehicles.