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Waving Yellow Flag on ‘Green’ Hybrid Vehicles

Times Staff Writer

Arriving at the Kodak Theatre for the Academy Awards, actors Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon clambered out of a Toyota Prius hybrid. Other stars aimed to make environmental statements by pulling up in gas-and-electric-powered Priuses, including Robin Williams and nominees Marcia Gay Harden and Keisha Castle-Hughes.

It was a public relations coup for Toyota Motor Corp. Japan’s biggest automaker and rival Honda Motor Co. are the only companies that sell hybrid-powered vehicles in the United States. And sales are booming, as people flock to showrooms, figuring that hybrids will save them lots of money, especially with gasoline prices so high.

But consumer advocates say the marketing glosses over a few things, including the true operating cost of the cars, despite their fabled fuel economy. “If you’re looking at this purely as a pocketbook decision, the hybrid won’t work,” says Gabriel Shenhar, senior auto test engineer for Consumer Reports magazine, although he has no quarrel with the hybrids’ environmental credentials.

The three main reasons:

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* Although the Prius and Honda’s Civic and Insight hybrids do get terrific gas mileage, in real-world use they rarely match the extraordinary fuel economy the Environmental Protection Agency gets on its test circuit.

The EPA rates the 2004 Prius at 60 miles per gallon in city driving and 51 mpg on the highway. The agency says Honda’s 2004 Civic Hybrid gets 48 mpg city and 47 highway, and its two-seat Insight is rated at 61 mpg in the city and 68 on the open road.

But Consumer Reports’ testers measured only 44 miles per gallon in combined city and highway driving for the new Prius for an upcoming review, Shenhar notes. Several owners of the Civic Hybrid told The Times that their cars average in the low 40s per gallon in daily use, and one super-commuter who drives 200 miles a day in his Honda Insight says he averages 52 mpg.

* The federal government is gradually rolling back the tax deduction hybrid buyers can claim -- it was $2,000 last year but $1,500 this year. Unless Congress renews it, the deduction will keep declining until it disappears in 2007.

Without the tax break, hybrids cost significantly more than conventionally powered counterparts. The Toyota Prius’ $20,510 sticker price is $4,400 more than that of a top-of-the-line, gasoline-fueled Toyota Corolla. The Honda Civic Hybrid, at $20,650, is $2,300 more than a top-end Honda Civic EX model.

So even with a hybrid’s fuel savings, it can take years to erase the price difference. And if tax rebates are omitted, Shenhar figures, it will take about 20 years to break even if a consumer buys a Civic Hybrid instead of a conventional Civic EX.

* Analysts at Internet car shopping and information service Edmunds.com say the technology that makes hybrids appealing is improving so quickly that today’s vehicles are likely to depreciate faster than conventional cars as new hybrids arrive.

“State-of-the-art today might not be so new when trade-in time comes three of four years from now,” says Karl Brauer, editor in chief at Santa Monica-based Edmunds.

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Edmunds’ “true-cost-to-own” formula shows that because of depreciation, a Prius or Civic Hybrid probably would cost $1,000 more over a five-year period than a comparable Corolla or conventional Civic.

What’s more, the life span of the hybrids’ expensive high- voltage battery packs is an issue that occasionally raises concerns. California and five other states require hybrids to be covered by a manufacturer’s warranty for 10 years or 150,000 miles.

Spokesmen for Toyota and Honda say they have not yet had a claim for replacement of the massive battery packs -- which are as wide as the cars themselves and carry a list price of about $3,000. The price is expected to decline as battery technology improves. Toyota engineers have talked about $1,000 replacement costs a few years from now.

“We expect the batteries to outlive the warranties,” says Gunnar Lindstrom, head of marketing for alternative-fuel vehicles at American Honda Motor Co. in Torrance.

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In rare cases when a hybrid isn’t used for months at a time, the main high-voltage battery pack can drain. Hybrid enthusiast Declan Joyce says his 2001 Prius was involved in an accident late last year and then sat in the body shop for several months. When the repairs were finished, the shop had to wait two extra days for Toyota to deliver the only high-voltage Prius recharger in Southern California before his car could be started.

Market Is Growing

Still, with regular-grade gas at $2.20 a gallon and climbing, battery worries and ownership costs don’t seem to weigh on shoppers’ minds.

Toyota Motor Sales USA boosted its 2004 sales target for the Prius to 47,000 units, up from 30,000 last year. American Honda Motor expects to sell about 20,000 Civic Hybrids this year and about 1,000 Insights, which have been slow sellers because they are two-seaters with little room for cargo.

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Both Torrance-based importers will add new hybrids to their lineups in the next year. Their Japanese rival Nissan Motor Co. and No. 1 and 2 American automakers General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co. all have plans to introduce hybrids of their own in the next two years.

Sharon Wrathall, who covers 195 miles a day commuting from Bakersfield to her job at a Burbank public relations firm, says she averages 46 miles per gallon in her 2004 Prius. And Kim Tsuchida, 28, a software developer for Warner Bros. Entertainment in Burbank, says her 2004 Honda Civic Hybrid delivers about 42 miles per gallon on her commute from West Los Angeles.

Both say they wouldn’t trade their hybrids for conventional models. Their harshest criticism: Their cars’ stereo systems aren’t very good.

At the same time, they say they are disappointed they can’t get the same mileage the automakers like to advertise.

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In fact, the EPA has received complaints from owners about the discrepancies and has discussed redesigning the mileage test for hybrids.

Money Isn’t Everything

Duane Allen, owner of two first-generation Priuses, agrees that it’s hard to look at vehicle mileage and make an economic argument for going hybrid.

The 57-year-old electronics engineer averages about 12,000 miles a year in his 2003 Prius. At today’s gas prices, he would save about $250 over what he would spend if he drove his wife’s new Toyota Scion xB, which gets about 34 mpg on the highway.

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The Prius cost about $5,000 more than the Scion, though, “so there’s no net savings at all,” he points out.

But Allen, like most other hybrid users, said he enjoys the psychic rewards of having to gas up only half as often as his neighbors do. He also likes “knowing that I’m causing a lot less pollution as I drive down the freeway.”

As “super-low-emission vehicles” with zero evaporative emissions from the gas tank and fuel lines, the Prius and Civic hybrids earn the best emissions rating that California issues -- though 17 conventionally powered cars do too.

Hybrids do pump out less carbon dioxide than gasoline-only low-emission vehicles, because they shut down their gas engines at stoplights. And the Prius can even run in all-electric mode for several miles if conditions are right, so it’s “greener” than a conventional car.

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“That’s what makes it worthwhile,” says Prius driver Wrathall. “I’m doing something good for the environment, and I’m getting more than twice the mileage I got with my old car.”


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