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Revenge of the Nerdmobiles

Preston Lerner last wrote for the magazine about go-kart racing pioneer Faye Pierson.

Scott Shelton is a car guy. make that a Crazed Car Guy. Like me, he’s afflicted with a genetic disorder that causes his testosterone level to spike alarmingly when he’s in the presence of a high-powered vehicle. But the recent birth of his first child has forced him to reluctantly consider trading his Porsche 911 for a more practical sport utility vehicle or, horror of horrors, a minivan. It’s enough, frankly, to make a Car Guy ill.

For the past few months, Shelton has been searching--and searching and searching--for a sensible SUV that won’t make him miserable. So I was stunned when he suddenly got jazzed about the Lexus RX 400h, a 2005 sport-ute based on the Toyota Camry, which is Japanese for “incredibly boring family sedan.” Stranger still, the Lexus is a hybrid, so called because its conventional gasoline engine is supplemented by an environmentally friendly electric motor. Until recently, hybrids have been sold mostly to earnest save-the-planet types on the basis of minimal tailpipe emissions and superior gas mileage. Car Guys have found them about as appealing as ’86 Taurus wagons with 220,000 miles on the clock and rust in the door sills.

“Since when are you interested in hybrids?” I asked him.

“You get more performance and better gas mileage,” he said. “I think that’s really sexy.”

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Shelton’s not the only one. Once the exclusive object of desire for a tiny niche of techno-geeks and tree-huggers, hybrids have percolated into the mainstream and emerged as legitimate alternatives to traditional gasoline-powered vehicles. As recently as two years ago, they were mostly hype. Last year, they became marginally hip, thanks to all of the A-list celebrities who drove them ostentatiously to Oscar galas and other high-profile events. Now, to the amazement of just about everybody in the automobile industry, they’re scorching hot.

The Toyota Prius, with its friendly and distinctive dashboard “Power” button, is the poster child for the hybrid car movement. Despite awkward styling and sluggish performance, the current model is so popular that it commands a premium of as much as $6,000 over the sticker price--if you can lay your hands on one. At most dealerships, the waiting list is three to six months. The original American allocation of 36,000 cars for 2004 has been increased to 47,000, and even that won’t come close to curing Prius envy.

“Our dealers tell us that they can sell double what we have today,” says Ed LaRocque, national manager of advanced technology vehicles for Toyota Motors Sales, U.S.A. Toyota announced earlier this month that it aims to build 180,000 Priuses for worldwide sales next year, a 50% boost over 2004 production, and is studying possible U.S. production of the fuel-efficient cars.

LaRocque expects sales of the Prius, Honda Insight and hybrid versions of the Honda Civic and Ford Escape to hit 88,000 units this year. Next year, he’s forecasting sales of 196,000 hybrids as buyers can choose from more than a dozen models ranging from ho-hum family sedans to spiffy sport-utes to honking full-size pickup trucks. By 2006, if product announcements are to be believed, there should be 20 different hybrids in U.S. showrooms.

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“Our forecast calls for as many as half a million hybrids to be sold in 2007,” says Walter McManus, executive director for forecasting and analysis at J.D. Power and Associates. “After that, it could go up to a million by 2011. That’s out of 17 million vehicles total, so we don’t see hybrids, per se, ever being more than a niche vehicle. But being a niche vehicle doesn’t mean it’s not successful.”

You don’t have to be a high-powered auto analyst to recognize what’s going on here: The war in Iraq and the skyrocketing cost of gas put a new spin--political, social and economic--on the prosaic act of filling up the tank, and hybrids deliver unparalleled fuel economy. The Prius gets 60 miles per gallon in city driving. The ultra-lightweight Insight is rated by the Environmental Protection Agency at a mind-boggling 66 miles per gallon on the highway--the best in the country. More tellingly, the hybrid Civic gets 48 miles per gallon in city driving, while the virtually identical non-hybrid model gets only 32.

As its name suggests, a hybrid is a high-tech mongrel that mixes two (or more) types of power sources. At the moment, the standard combo is a conventional gasoline-fueled internal combustion engine and a small electric motor designed to work together as seamlessly as Astaire and Rogers. The gas engine does the heavy lifting. But it shuts off when the car stops--at a red light, say. (This feels positively spooky the first time you experience it.) The electric motor provides the power to restart the gas engine and drive the car at low speed. The result is lower tailpipe emissions and fuel economy that non-hybrids can’t dream of matching.

Even so, hybrids don’t make sense strictly from a financial standpoint. Since they have not one but two power sources, they cost between $3,000 and $5,000 more than their conventional counterparts--not including any dealer markups. So you’d have to keep a hybrid a long time just to break even despite the savings at the gas pump.

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Then again, money isn’t the measure of all things, is it? Hybrids are the car of choice of environmental do-gooders because they’re certified by the California Air Resources Board as SULEVs, or Super Ultra Low Emission Vehicles, which means they’re 90% cleaner than the typical passenger car. Believe it or not, the stuff coming out of their tailpipes can be cleaner than the air most Angelenos breathe.

Environmental activists see the rising tide of hybrid hysteria as how-sweet-it-is vindication of the Air Resources Board’s fierce regulatory commitment to green vehicles despite decades of tenacious--some would say pigheaded--opposition from carmakers. “People are clamoring nationwide for hybrid vehicles,” says Jason Mark, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ clean vehicles program. “This is proof-positive that consumers do care about the environment.”

Actually, the jury is still out. at the moment, the average Prius buyer earns more than $100,000 a year, so a few thousand bucks to help the planet--or just to look smug--isn’t much of a hardship. Also, many experts believe that Toyota has jacked up interest in hybrids by selling them at fire-sale prices. Company officials insist that they made money on the original Prius and will soon turn a profit on the model introduced last year. But skeptics continue to maintain that the Prius is, in effect, a $30,000 car that’s being sold for $25,000.

“Toyota can afford to do this because it’s the most profitable automobile manufacturer in the world, and it makes sense as a public-relations issue, as a governmental-relations issue and as a technology-investigation issue,” says Jim Hossack, a consultant at AutoPacific in Tustin, an automotive research and analysis firm. “We’re not talking about millions of vehicles, so if they have to sell the cars for less than they cost to build, big deal. But the situation is different at Ford, Chrysler and GM. They can’t afford to spend a billion dollars on hybrids when they’re barely breaking even.”

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If hybrids are such a no-brainer, critics say, then why isn’t everybody building them? Toyota and Honda are the only companies that seem to be fully committed to the technology. Ford and General Motors only now are dipping their toes in the water after years of brave talk. In Europe, the smart money is on cutting-edge diesels that generate impressive gas numbers and zippy performance. Hybrids, by definition, require two power sources, an engineering solution straight out of the Department of Redundancy Department. “That adds weight, complexity and cost to the vehicle,” says Karl-Heinz Ziwica, vice president of engineering at BMW of North America.

So maybe hybrids aren’t the greatest thing since Big Gulp cup holders. But maybe, to paraphrase Winston Churchill’s take on democracy, they’re the worst solution except for all others. Electric vehicles have fizzled. Hydrogen-powered fuel-cell vehicles--the Holy Grail for both automakers and environmentalists--are at least a generation away. Diesels can’t meet emissions standards. Natural gas isn’t viable. What else is there? The flux capacitor in the DeLorean from “Back to the Future”?

Hybrids are right here, right now, and they’re finding a mainstream audience for whom hybrid technology is just another selling point, like power windows or an MP3 player.

“I bought it sight unseen,” says Dan Wolf, vice president of corporate communications at the Walt Disney Co. “The No. 1 reason, I guess, was an amorphous it’s-really-neat thing. Shortly behind that was the gas mileage. Shortly behind that was the environmental benefit. But I probably would have bought it even if it weren’t a green car. When you’re stuck in grinding traffic, you have all those [computer screen] displays to look at, which is entertaining, and that’s when you get the best mileage, so there’s also a psychic reward. I can’t imagine why anybody would buy a Camry instead of a Prius. I’ve never enjoyed a car this much.” Pause. Sheepish chuckle. “We’re like a cult, I guess. But there are worse cults to be part of.”

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The back story of the Toyota Prius opens more than half a century ago in the chemistry lab of a Caltech professor. Arie J. Haagen-Smit had been studying the effects of smog, which posed a far more visible, noxious and deadly public-health hazard than it does now. At the time, smoke from a variety of largely industrial sources was thought to be the principal cause of smog. (“Smog” is a contraction of “smoke” and “fog.”) But Haagen-Smit soon demonstrated that a colorless gas known as ozone, not smoke, was a central component of smog. In 1952, he made an even more important discovery: Ozone wasn’t emitted directly into the atmosphere via smokestacks or incinerators. Instead, it was created when sunlight reacted with hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides. And L.A.'s most ubiquitous source of hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides was the automobile.

Since the 1950s, California has led the war on air pollution. Catalytic converters debuted here. So did oxygen sensors, emissions-catching PCV valves, vapor-recovery gasoline hoses and the Smog Check program. In 1967, when the Federal Air Quality Act was passed, California already was in the smog-regulation business, so it became the only state permitted to retain its own more restrictive pollution standards. Thus, most vehicles sold in the United States come in two forms--the California version and the dirtier federal, or 49-state, version. (Actually, five other states have adopted California standards, which means that roughly one out of every five new cars sold in America is California-legal.)

Smog wasn’t conquered overnight, of course. Twenty-five years ago, there were 120 Stage 1 smog alerts in Southern California. “I remember lots of days when P.E. was canceled,” says Assembly member (and proud Prius owner) Fran Pavley, who grew up in Sherman Oaks and who wrote a landmark 2002 bill designed to dramatically limit the role cars play in global warming--the next great emissions frontier. In 1990, despite the sky-is-falling pronouncements from automakers, the California Air Resources Board adopted visionary standards for a new generation of cleaner vehicles. It’s no coincidence that, since 1999, there has been only one Stage 1 smog alert in Southern California.

But if the Low Emission Vehicle Program was a remarkable success, the Zero Emission Vehicle Program--effectively an electric car mandate--was a colossal dud. The state Air Resources Board demanded that by 1998 2% of all cars sold in California generate no pollution and 10% accomplish that same goal by 2003. As it turns out, there now are basically zero zero-emissions vehicles on California roads. The anticipated improvements in battery technology never materialized, and the handful of automakers who brought electric cars to market pulled the plug after a few pitiful years.

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“I understand why people didn’t jump on the bandwagon,” says Chris Yoder, a Caltech IT manager who bought a Prius after GM repossessed the beloved EV1 electric car he’d been leasing. “Electric cars required a paradigm shift. You really had to stop and think about transportation. With a hybrid, you don’t have to do that.”

Although hybrids have electric motors, they don’t live by batteries alone. On the contrary, most of their mojo comes from a gasoline-fueled internal-combustion engine that drives the wheels even as it powers a generator to produce additional electricity. That allows hybrids to stay fully juiced without being tethered to an electrical outlet--the major deal-breaker with the EV1.

Hybrids are nothing new. The first patents were issued at the turn of the century--the 20th century, that is. For modern engineers, the challenge was to marry a gasoline-powered internal combustion engine with a battery-powered electric motor in such a way that it maximized fuel economy and minimized tailpipe emissions without compromising performance. In the mid-1990s, Toyota engineers in Japan said they had managed just that. To which David Hermance, a top engineer at the Toyota Technical Center, U.S.A., said: “ ‘Yeah, right.’ It sounded like the [mythical] 100-mile-per-gallon carburetor all over again.”

Like the EV1, the Prius takes advantage of regenerative braking--capturing the kinetic energy that would otherwise be lost when a car slows down and using it to charge the battery. But the Prius goes where no car has gone before in terms of the link between its gasoline and a pair of electric motors. A network of powerful computers running sophisticated algorithms constantly monitors factors such as speed, throttle position and battery charge to determine how to most efficiently divide the power drain from each motor. At one point, the gasoline engine might supply 88% of the power, and the electric motors the remaining 12%. Two seconds later, it could be 47% gasoline and 53% electric. Under some conditions, such as pulling away slowly from a stoplight, the electric motors do all the work. Under others, such as aggressive acceleration, the gas engine carries the entire load. “Once I understood how it worked,” Hermance says, “I said, ‘Whoa, this definitely changes the game.’ ”

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Meanwhile, Honda--Mothra to Toyota’s Godzilla and a company that prides itself on pushing the technology envelope--was perfecting its own system. But Honda placed its faith in what is now known as a mild hybrid. This involves a smaller, simpler electric motor used only to assist the gasoline engine. (Think of Toyota’s electric motor as a junior partner, Honda’s as an assistant.) “The merits of our technology are that, A) it’s scalable and, B) it uses fewer components,” says Robert Bienenfeld, senior manager of product planning at American Honda Motor Co. “As long as we have room between the wheels to accommodate 2 1/2 inches of electric motor, we can adapt our system to just about any engine we have.”

Honda got to the American market first, in December 1999. Its Insight was a sleek, Jetson-esque two-seater offering fuel economy but limited utility. The Toyota Prius arrived the following summer. It was a credible sedan, but pug-ugly and bog-slow. True believers went gaga. Everybody else went to sleep. After three years of meager sales, Ward’s Auto World, a leading trade magazine, ran a story under the headline: “Hybrid Heartburn.”

Had the hybrid already come and gone?

Many hybrid owners are fixated on--make that clinically obsessed with--fuel economy. Not because they want to stop global warming, or reduce American dependence on foreign oil, or spend less money on gas--though, in fact, most of them want all three. The main reason for their infatuation stems from the dazzling array of Tokyo-at-midnight gauges in their cockpits. It’s virtually impossible to drive a Prius without keeping one eye on the mesmerizing bar graph that displays how many miles you’re getting to the gallon. And the compulsion to drive this number ever upward makes the hybrid experience not merely challenging, but, well, fun.

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“It’s like doing your own little video game every single drive,” says Insight owner Amy Posner, a Granada Hills safety engineer. “I get depressed if I don’t get good gas mileage. I’m currently getting 65 to 68 miles per gallon, but I’ve done as well as 70. I won’t let my husband drive the car because he brings down my average.”

The irony of life with a hybrid is that drivers will do just about anything to pump up their numbers even though they already get ridiculous gas mileage. They dawdle on the highway, putter away from stop signs, coast for blocks to red lights. On one of the dozens of Web sites devoted to hybrids, there’s a forum in which enthusiasts have listed more than 60 signs that “you’re a real hybrid owner.” No. 55: “You curve your front license plate to reduce drag.” No. 59: “You never fill up the gas tank over half full, so the car is lighter.”

Automakers aren’t stupid. They realize that there’s a limited supply of consumers with this level of devotion to their products. And, in fact, Toyota insists that the success of the 2004 Prius isn’t the result of group hysteria tinged with celebrity worship but the rational product of good old-fashioned Economics 101: The car is bigger, faster, better-looking and better-equipped than the model it replaced, yet the price remained the same. What’s not to like?

GM recently started selling full-size pickup trucks with ultra-mild hybrids that improve fuel economy by 13%. That’s not stop-the-presses material, but the current premium comes out to $1,500. Consumers can do the math themselves and decide whether this option will save them money. In 2006, GM will offer a similar system in a family sedan and compact SUV. “Our philosophy is not to build a hybrid from the ground up but to put hybrid technology in vehicles we’re selling already,” says GM spokesman Dave Barthmuss. “We’ll build hybrids on the same assembly lines that we build non-hybrid vehicles, and we’ll sell as many as the market demands.”

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More exotic hybrids will cost between $3,000 and $5,000 more. At that price, fuel economy isn’t a persuasive selling point, and history suggests that most Americans don’t much care about cars with great gas mileage. They’re willing to pay through the nose for performance, though, so salesmen pushing the 2005 Toyota Highlander SUV likely will stress that the addition of two electric motors translates into V-8 power out of a V-6 engine, not that the hybrid model gets 50% better fuel economy than the conventional one. “The whole idea is to sell better performance,” Hermance says. “Better fuel economy will just be a bonus.”

With so much going for them, hybrids appear to be here to stay. Yes, there still are plenty of questions about service, durability, resale value and battery disposal. If gas prices drop, interest in hybrids might plummet. If emissions standards are relaxed, diesels suddenly make more sense. Fuel cells have numerous heavy hitters in their corner, including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has committed California to creating a so-called Hydrogen Highway--a statewide infrastructure of hydrogen-dispensing stations--by 2010.

For the time being, though, hybrids are the only game in town, and they’ve made converts out of mainstream consumers such as Jeff Kash, a middle-school history teacher in North Hollywood. Kash is interested in technology, but he isn’t a gadget freak. Although he’s concerned about the environment, he doesn’t chain himself to old-growth trees. He chose not to buy the first Prius because, he says, “it was just too ugly.” He bought the new-and-improved 2004 model earlier this year after six months on a waiting list, and he wouldn’t trade it for anything.

“It’s strange because I really don’t care that much about stuff,” he says. “I’m not a collector. I don’t have to have the best of everything. This is the only time I can ever remember wanting something so badly. I’m not sure what it is about the Prius. I guess there’s something about all the thought that went into it that really speaks to me.”

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*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

You Know You’re a Real Hybrid Owner When . . .

* 49.9 is not the same as 50.1 when it comes to miles per gallon.

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* You lean forward going up hills instead of hitting the gas.

* You’re not out of gas until the low-fuel light has been on for about 80 miles.

* You memorize topographical maps of your daily drive.

* You won’t run errands unless they are more than 50 miles away so you don’t hurt your average.

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* While you don’t mind showing friends your hybrid, you’d rather not drive them around because the extra weight might lower your gas mileage.

* You have a perfectly good air conditioner but refuse to use it unless you’re going downhill.

* You gleefully buy the cheap gas.

* You post your gas mileage online.

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(Excerpted from the original posting on a discussion forum at www.greenhybrid.com. The writer gave the make, model and color of hybrid car and acknowledged a normal commute of 53 miles each way.)


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