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North Neighborhoods
High gas prices could make hybrids appealing

Sunday, March 09, 2003

Susan Seibel

So, you're standing at the gas pump filling up your Ford Expedition and it occurs to you that you've just used the last of your second child's college fund to run your SUV for a week.

Gas is running about $1.56 a gallon at the moment, and your Expedition gets about 15 miles per gallon on a good day. It gets about 18 on the highway.

And the news about gas prices isn't good. No one is willing to predict how the volatile Middle East situation will affect gas prices, but one thing is certain -- despite whatever political maneuverings come along, you can count on the coming of summer to raise gas prices by about 5 cents a gallon. A cleaner grade of gas is sold in the summer, and it costs more.

Now, some families need the space an SUV provides, and those families are just going have to do some bullet-biting, unfortunately. And some folks who buy SUVs -- a loaded Expedition costs about $41,000, and a loaded Suburban about $42,000 -- don't have to worry about the price of gas. They've got the money to spend and love their SUVs so much they'll drive them anyway.

But if you were looking for an alternative with less appetite for gasoline, you might want to try the new hybrids -- cars with both gas and electric motors -- on the market today.

I drove two hybrids last week, the Honda Civic Hybrid and the Toyota Prius, and I was impressed.

To answer your first question, no, you never have to plug in either car. They contain batteries with eight-year warranties to supply the electric power. The gas engines charge the batteries when you're idling, and the batteries are also somehow recharged when you apply the car's brakes. I'd love to tell you how that happens, but I'm not sure myself.

But Bill Spaley of Baierl Honda in McCandless can.

Since the 2003 premiere of the Civic Hybrid, the auto dealership has sold a few each month, but in an era when SUVs have won the hearts of many, the cars are not exactly selling like hot cakes.

I can't deny that this modern-day ice age we seem to be living in might make high-traction vehicles attractive, despite their gas use.

"To be honest with you, people don't care about high-mileage cars," Spaley said. But he agreed that climbing gas prices could change hearts rather quickly.

The Civic Hybrid is a compact sedan that looks just like the traditional Civic. If you'd like to pay off your mortgage someday rather than fill your gas tank, the Civic Hybrid gets 47 mpg in the city and 51 on the highway.

Those who are interested in the Civic Hybrid tend to be highly educated, Spaley said, and many work in academia, whether as school administrators or college professors.

Alan Beegle of Baierl Toyota in Marshall said people who buy the Prius are usually highly educated as well and are either environmentalists -- which Beegle tends to be himself -- or intrigued with the advanced technological gadgetry of the Prius.

The Prius does, in fact, look more high-tech than the Civic Hybrid. Rather than the gauge-laden dashboard we're used to, the Prius has a touch-screen computer centered on the dash that lets drivers select their favorite radio station, monitor battery levels and display a GPS tracking system.

Not to be disrespectful, but the gadget is a little like the MTO touch screen at Sheetz. The Prius, of course, is not going to make a sandwich for you, but it will give you 52 mpg in the city and 48 on the highway.

Beegle explained that the higher mileage in the city is because the Prius relies more on battery power in the city and uses more gasoline on the highway.

Both cars rock when it comes to emissions. Tests in California show they actually put out cleaner air than they take in when driven in highly polluted areas.

Honda also sells the Insight, a two-door aerodynamic compact that gets 68 mpg.

It's a cute little sporty thing, but, alas, it's sold out, and Spaley had none for me to drive.

The Insight gets the highest gas mileage of any car in the nation and can go up to 700 miles between fill-ups. Almost makes you feel at one with the environment, doesn't it?

But perhaps you're not the type to curl up with a cup of organic herbal tea and read Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring." Maybe you just like the idea of saving money.

Well, let's suppose you live near Butler and work in Pittsburgh. That 82-mile round trip in an SUV can cost you $8.50 a day at today's regular unleaded gas prices. The same trip will cost you about $2.42 a day in a Prius.

According to Beegle, you'd save $1,110 in gas in a typical 15,000-mile year if you drove a 52-mpg Prius instead of a 15-mpg SUV. And if you buy a new hybrid of any type before Dec. 31, you can take advantage of a $2,000 federal tax deduction.

No wonder smart people are buying them.

Susan Seibel is a freelance writer. If you have transportation questions you'd like her to answer, send them to her c/o PG New North, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh 15222, or e-mail them to trans@zbzoom.net.

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