Hybrid cars are disappearing off dealer lots as buyers looking for relief from $4-a-gallon gasoline endure waiting lists, price markups and paltry trade-ins in their quest for better fuel economy.
"I'm selling every one I can get my hands on," said Kenny Burns, general sales manager at Toyota of Hollywood. With only one Camry hybrid in stock and a 30-day waiting list for a new Prius, Burns is selling the cars as fast as Toyota can deliver them.
"The day the car comes in is the day the car goes out," he said.
The story is much the same for hybrid versions of the Honda Civic, the Nissan Altima and the Ford Escape, which have all seen a jump in buyer interest in recent weeks.
Toyota is even considering introducing different versions of its Prius, which at 46 miles per gallon overall is the most fuel-efficient car sold in America by a major manufacturer. It is available now only as a four-door hatchback.
Although hybrid cars account for only about 3% of U.S. car sales, their share is growing rapidly. Sales of hybrid cars surged 25% during the first four months of this year compared with the same period last year. And the pace accelerated last month, when sales jumped 58%. That outpaced the overall April sales gain of 18% for small fuel-efficient cars and comes as total new-vehicle sales are slumping.
The reason is simple. The average price of a gallon of self-serve regular gas topped $4 a gallon in California for the first time Thursday, according to AAA. That's up 16% from a year earlier, and many analysts expect pump prices to go higher as the summer driving season kicks off over the Memorial Day weekend.
Hybrids run on a combination of gasoline and electric power, and the most efficient models get mileage that is one-third better than comparable gas-only vehicles and can get double the fuel economy of sport utility vehicles and pickup trucks.
They also produce fewer greenhouse-gas emissions than most other vehicles. That has been a strong selling point for hybrids since they debuted in the U.S. eight years ago, although some drivers complain that Prius owners affect a "holier-than-thou" vibe.
That perception kept Lynzee Klingman, a film editor who lives in West Los Angeles, from considering a "Pious" for several years. Then she rented one last month and discovered she enjoyed the sensation of driving past gas stations without stopping to fill up.
"You know that self-righteousness that Prius drivers like to exude? I love it!" Klingman said. "I feel so smart."
Klingman leased her Prius last month without having to wait. That probably wouldn't be the case today.
Burns said he had 60 people on the Prius waiting list at his Hollywood dealership and groused that he couldn't get as many as he wanted.
In April it took Toyota an average of 17 days to sell a Prius, according to Edmunds.com inventory figures. That's now down to three days, the automaker says.
The shortage is pushing up prices. A month ago, Priuses were selling for an average of $25,147, slightly below the sticker price. Today, some dealers are slapping $3,000 premiums on the car -- pushing prices well over $28,000, according to Jesse Toprak, Edmunds' head of industry analysis.
Others, like Toyota of Hollywood, are holding to the sticker but require customers to buy dealer-installed options -- such as anti-theft systems or fancy interior accents -- that can add $1,500 or more to the price of the car.
And good luck finding the new stripped-down "zero" model Prius that Toyota unveiled for the '08 model year. Burns' latest shipment of 19 Priuses from Japan included not a single "zero," which lists for $21,500.
At Honda of Pasadena, the Civic hybrid commands a $2,000 premium over its $23,235 sticker, sales manager Fred Orta said.
Used Priuses and Civic hybrids with carpool lane stickers are also selling dear, getting markups of several thousand dollars. The stickers, which the state stopped issuing early last year, allow solo drivers to use the carpool lane. Manhattan Beach Toyota is asking almost $33,000 for a sticker-equipped 2005 Prius with more than 41,000 miles on the odometer.
It was the introduction of carpool stickers in 2005 that sparked the first big hybrid boom in California, by far the nation's largest hybrid market. Back then, Toyota was making far fewer Priuses -- U.S.-bound production could reach 170,000 this year -- and the queue at Hollywood Toyota was six months long.
In part because of their complex powertrains, hybrids typically cost more than comparable gas-powered cars anyway.
That has led countless car buyers to ask this question: How high do gas prices need to rise before paying more for a hybrid makes financial sense?
Edmunds.com recently estimated that with gas at $3.61 a gallon, a hybrid Camry, which gets 34 mpg in combined city/highway driving versus 25 for a regular Camry, would make up the sticker-price difference in about 1 1/2 years, based on 15,000 miles a year of driving.
For a buyer choosing between a conventional Camry and a Prius, the latter would make up for the price difference in 3 1/2 years.
Rising gas prices can shorten that "payback" time, but the higher premiums being charged by dealers must also be factored in, Toprak said.
Buyers spooked by high hybrid prices should consider high-mileage conventional cars, such as the Toyota Corolla, the Honda Fit, the Mini Cooper or the Ford Focus, which get 28 mpg or more but can cost thousands less than hybrids, some experts advise.
Automakers, eager to ride the hybrid wave, are hatching plans to bring more models to market.
This week Honda released new details of its long-promised hybrid-only car -- that is, a vehicle sold only as a hybrid, as opposed to its Civic, which is sold in gas and hybrid versions.
The planned four-door hatchback, dubbed the "Prius killer" by industry watchers, is expected to hit showrooms early next year and be priced low enough to attract buyers who can't afford a Prius.
Toyota is mulling over whether to create a family of hybrid vehicles under the Prius nameplate. Although there are no concrete plans, the brand extension could one day lead to a sedan, a minivan or even a small pickup truck bearing the Prius badge.
Meanwhile, buyers looking to trade in a big sport utility vehicle or pickup are in for a shock. Trade-in values on big SUVs fell 8% since last fall, according to Kelley Blue Book, which tracks used-car prices. And the situation has gotten worse in the last few weeks.
At Honda of Pasadena, Orta is still taking trucks and SUVs in trade. But the wholesale market for the vehicles is so soft, customers are getting a fraction of what they paid just three or four years ago.
"Some of them feel offended by it," Orta said, "but that's the reality right now."