Wait times for hybrid vehicles disappear as manufacturers drive up production
When gasoline-electric hybrid cars hit the market less than a decade ago, with promises of exceptional miles per gallon, buyers in many cases had to wait a year or more for them to arrive from the manufacturer.
Even a year ago, there was often a three- or four-month wait for some fuel-efficient vehicles.
"Now they're finding them readily available at the lot," said Bob Hyman, sales manager at Toyota of Weymouth. "They can be driven home that day."
Auto dealers in southeastern Massachusetts say car manufacturers are producing a significantly larger number of hybrids to keep up with the rising demand for fuel-efficient vehicles in the face of steep gas prices. For example, Toyota boosted its production capacity with the hopes of selling 175,000 Prius cars this year, an increase from the nearly 107,000 cars that were sold last year.
In 2006, for the third straight year, Toyota's Prius was the hybrid sales leader, with more than 40 percent of new registrations. Total registrations for new hybrid vehicles in the United States rose by 28 percent last year to nearly 255,000.
An estimated 1.5 percent of cars sold in the United States are hybrids, which retail for an average of $3,000 more than their "regular" counterparts. Federal tax credits can make up some of that difference, but they're being phased out for certain Toyota and Lexus models. Some forecasters say hybrids will account for 9 percent or more of all autos sold in 2010.
Jay Goodwin, owner and general manager of Hyannis Honda on Cape Cod, said that a year ago, it would take six to eight weeks to fill an order for a Honda Civic hybrid. Now, the dealership can fill such an order in less than a month. He said there's one Civic hybrid still on his lot right now. The dealership also has several Accord hybrids in stock.
"Honda is building more hybrids now than they ever had, and they're available," Goodwin said.
Hyman said the Weymouth Toyota dealership's business has seen a boost because of the demand for cab cars in Boston.
"They were buying them right along, so (Toyota) gave us extra cars because of that," Hyman said.
Hyman said his dealership has about a dozen hybrid Camrys, several hybrid Highlander SUVs, and fewer than 12 Prius models on the lot right now.
"As the gas prices go up, we've had a high demand on (hybrids)," Hyman said. "Our inventory is about half of what it was, say, six weeks ago. They're still replacing the cars. It's just that there's a higher demand on them now as the gas prices creep up."
Some dealerships are not seeing brisk hybrid sales. Salesman Dave Good of Good Brothers Ford in Randolph said the Ford Escape hybrid SUV has attracted a number of inquiries, but only a handful are sold every year.
"We get a lot of questions about it, but, believe it or not, they haven't caught on as much as people would like to think that they've caught on," Good said. "They're very efficient in stop-and-go traffic, say, if you live in downtown Boston. ... At low speeds, below 20, 25 miles an hour, the electric motor drives the vehicle. As soon as you get over that speed, the gas kicks in. In the Northeast, if you want to have heat, you have to have the gasoline running. If you want air conditioning on, you have to have the gasoline engine running."
One driving force behind the sale of hybrids, of course, is the desire of the auto-buying public to reduce gasoline consumption and emissions that threaten the environment. Whether hybrids will be the answer to the country's air pollution problems is the subject of lengthy debate.
"We need something else besides the hybrid, whether it's all-electric or all-hydrogen or something like that," Good said. "We have to get away from gasoline."
The fuel cell, which combines hydrogen and oxygen to create electricity, is considered a sound alternative, but no fuel cell-powered vehicles are ready for mass production.
Basically, a hybrid combines a gasoline engine and an electric motor to provide adequate power with minimal fuel usage and low emissions. Hybrids charge themselves by using energy normally lost during coasting and braking, and can also be charged by the car's gasoline engine.
Hyman is fortunate. Toyota's Prius, which gets at least 60 miles per gallon in the city and 51 on the highway, remains the top-selling hybrid nationwide, and the Toyota brand represents three-fourths of hybrid sales in the U.S. Other popular Toyota hybrids include the Highlander SUV and the Camry.
The price of a Prius starts at about $23,000, Hyman said. The Camry hybrid lists for $27,000, while Toyota's Highlander hybrid SUV comes in at about $37,000. Hyman said that about 5 or 6 percent of all cars sold at Toyota of Weymouth are hybrids.
Because dealers are selling their hybrids at such a high volume right now, the Toyota parent company recently reduced the price on all of its Prius models, Hyman said. Depending on the model and accessories package, a customer can save between $200 and $2,000.
"When the Prius first came out in 2001, Toyota was losing money on every unit," Hyman said. "Now it's a production car, and they're making money on it. What it came down to is, when there's a high demand on a product, they can mass produce it more and lower the price."