"I asked to be on the waiting list, and the salesman said he didn't have one," said Johnson, who works in investments. "So I said, 'OK, I want you to start a waiting list.' "
As evident on the streets of cities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco, hybrids have an almost cult-like following, but getting the masses to buy them with any consistency is another matter. In their zeal to meet what seemed an insatiable appetite for hybrids in the middle of last year, carmakers may have gone too far, said IHS Global Insight's Lindland.
At the end of June, AutoNation, the country's largest chain of new-car dealerships, had only a two-day supply of Honda Civic hybrids and a 14-day supply of the non-hybrid Civic. By year's end, the picture had flipped, with AutoNation holding 107 days' worth of regular Civics, compared with 148 days' stock of the hybrid version.
In December, Toyota terminated plans to build the Prius in a $1.3-billion plant it had built in Mississippi, and Chrysler closed its only hybrid-producing factory.
"The price of gasoline dictates what people buy," AutoNation Chief Executive Mike Jackson said. "Gas fell to $2, and now my lots are filled up with fuel-efficient cars that aren't moving."
Consumers who do buy these days tend to focus more on present-day arithmetic than long-term commodity speculation.
Three weeks ago, Jerome Haig, a lawyer in Torrance, put down a $500 deposit on a Fusion hybrid, even though he hasn't even test-driven one because they have yet to hit lots. "I do like the idea of getting a hybrid," Haig said.
But he concedes that he might not have considered the car had it not been for a $3,400 tax credit on Ford hybrids and a deduction on new-car sales tax. The latter was part of the $787-billion federal stimulus package. "The tax advantages are a pretty big incentive."
A sales-tax deduction does little to move vehicles like the $74,085 Cadillac Escalade hybrid or the Lexus LS600h, which starts at $105,885. Neither gets better than 21 mpg, and buyers pay a premium over similar gasoline-only vehicles that would take decades for owners to equal in fuel savings even if gas hit $5 a gallon. So far this year, only 415 of the pair have sold nationwide.
Still, some consumers see the depressed hybrid market as a buying opportunity.
Chad Gallagher, a lawyer in Berkeley, took advantage of a Presidents Day promotion, plus a healthy measure of dealer desperation, to buy a fully loaded Prius last month for $5,000 under sticker price.
"We got the touring package, leather seats, navigation, Bluetooth, everything," Gallagher said.
"I think they were just happy to sell the thing."