Originally created 09/14/03

Hybrid vehicles face slow ride to success



Karl Quinn loves his hybrid - an automobile powered partly by an electric motor and partly by gasoline.

Why?

"I enjoy the power, the pickup that it has and the gas mileage," he said.

Mr. Quinn, who lives off Boy Scout Road, drives his Honda Civic Hybrid to work at Savannah River Site daily. He says he has to stop for gas about once every eight days and gets about 37 mpg on the highway. He says his car has as much pickup as any other car.

"It's fantastic for going back and forth to work," said Mr. Quinn, who has a wife and two children, noting that the battery charges itself at cruising speed and doesn't have to be plugged in at night.

In Augusta, dealers of the cars say hybrid sales have increased lately. Still, overall demand for hybrids - which currently are sold only by Honda and Toyota in the United States - hasn't competed with truck or sport utility vehicle sales, dealers said.

"People don't understand the technology, and so they tend to stick to what they know," said Ricky Stokes, the general manager at Gerald Jones Honda, which sells the Civic Hybrid.

Scott Wade, the general manager of Honda Cars of Aiken, which has sold the most hybrids in the area since 2002, said he has seen more hybrid sales because more engineers live in Aiken and are familiar with the technology.

A hybrid works by combining the power of an electric motor and a gasoline engine. During city and highway travel, the motor and the engine both run the car unless the driver accelerates or decelerates.

When the car accelerates, the engine takes more control, allowing the electric motor to charge the car's battery more. During braking, the electric motor takes over and charges the battery.

At stops, the gas engine quits and the electric motor is in charge.

ACCORDING TO TOYOTA'S Web site, more than 100,000 Prius hybrids are on the road worldwide. The Prius has a base price of $20,480.

The vehicle gets an average of about 48 mpg, can travel about 566 miles on a full gas tank and never needs to be plugged in for recharging, the Web site says.

The Civic Hybrid, which has a base price of $19,550, gets similar gas mileage and can travel up to 650 miles on a single tank of gas, according to its Web site.

One more positive of a hybrid - a $2,000 tax rebate from the federal government. Such benefits haven't stirred a large demand locally for hybrids, but dealers say sales should continue to increase.

Gerald Jones Honda sold one hybrid in 2002 and has sold 10 this year. At Bourne Toyota, four Prius hybrids were sold in 2002. This year, the dealership has sold six.

Taylor Toyota sold three hybrids last year and seven this year. Honda Cars of Aiken sold the most, with seven last year and 13 this year.

"You can pretty much guarantee if gas prices go up, hybrid sales do, too," Mr. Wade said.

He said that since the five-seater Civic Hybrid came out as the successor to the two-seater Honda Insight Hybrid, demand has increased.

Within the next three years, Mr. Wade said, the demand for hybrids should grow further, because small SUVs that incorporate the technology will reach the market.

"The future is here," he said.

WHAT WOULD HAPPEN if Augusta motorists embraced such a future?

For one thing, gas stations would probably lose money. Marceletta English, the owner of English Peach Orchard Road Chevron, says she hasn't lost sleep over the thought.

"Not until I see a whole lot more on the road," she said, noting that she has never seen a hybrid in traffic.

Environmentalists say more hybrids on the roads would help Augusta's air quality by reducing emissions from gasoline-powered vehicles.

"It would certainly contribute to improving air quality," said Kevin Chambers, a spokesman for the Georgia Environmental Protection Division.

Ron Crowden, the manager of Augusta's fleet department, said a Toyota RAV4 sport utility vehicle hybrid was considered last year by his department but that the price - more than $40,000 - was too high.

"This community cannot afford it right now," he said, referring to the possibility of city departments using hybrids. "It would be great for the air, but it's just basically a tradeoff."

Mr. Crowden said smaller, less expensive hybrids, such as the Prius or Civic Hybrid, wouldn't be feasible because large vehicles are better equipped for city use.

Heyward Johnson, the director of Augusta Public Transit, said a battery-powered bus could cost the city as much as $400,000, compared with a $200,000 diesel-powered bus.

"The expense really goes up," he said. "We're going to try to stay with a diesel engine as long as we can."

PRESIDENT BUSH and scientists are already planning for the step beyond the hybrid - a technology called fuel cells. Mr. Bush recently pushed fuel cells by supporting a $1.7 billion research program to develop hydrogen as America's next energy source.

Mr. Bush has said that in 20 years Americans will drive cars with hydrogen-powered fuel cells. In that case, no gas would be needed, and the vehicle's only emission would be water.

Earlier this year, a $210,000 grant from the National Science Foundation was awarded to the University of South Carolina, which has joined with SRS to make hydrogen fuel cells a reality.

Mr. Quinn said such a vehicle would interest him.

"It makes sense," he said.

But for now, he says he'll keep his eye on the hybrid.

"If Honda made other models with hybrid engines in it, I would not hesitate," he said.

CURRENT HYBRIDS

TOYOTA PRIUS:

  • Miles per tank - 566
  • Estimated mileage in city - 52 mpg
  • Estimated mileage on highway - 45 mpg
  • Base price - $20,480
  • HONDA CIVIC HYBRID:

  • Miles per tank - up to 650
  • Estimated mileage in city - 45 mpg
  • Estimated mileage on highway - 51 mpg
  • Base price - $19,650
  • Source: Honda, Toyota Web sites

    Reach Preston Sparks at (706) 828-3904 or preston.sparks@augustachronicle.com.