A Little Car's Big Statement

The federal tax credit for buying a Toyota Prius hybrid car will be cut in half after this week. Humorist Brian Unger predicts that, despite the loss of tax credits, the change won't end the popularity of the little hybrid that makes a big statement.

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MIKE PESCA, host:

Well, clean engines are good, but getting a tax credit for clean engines is better. Did you know that this is the last week to cash in on a sizable write-off if you crave membership among the elite class of hybrid-car owners? Brian Unger knew, and here he is with today's Unger Report.

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BRIAN UNGER: In 1992, one car company announced the formation of an earth charter. That included guiding principles like being concerned about the environment, achieving zero emissions and developing top-level fuel efficiency. Something downright un-American was afoot indeed.

To achieve these goals, a secret committee called G21 was formed - G for global, and 21 for 21st century. This covert operation would eventually produce a car that would take its name from the Latin word meaning before, and produce a unique class of proud-but-slightly-arrogant car driver stretching all the way from Santa Monica, California to Brentwood, California. The year was 1997, and in Japan the Toyota Prius was born.

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UNGER: Meanwhile, in the U.S. that same year, just under a million people drove off the car lot in America's number-one-selling vehicle, the Ford F150-series pickup truck.

(Soundbite of song, "On the Road Again")

UNGER: About a decade after the Prius hit American roads, Toyota has overtaken Ford and is about to overtake GM as the world's largest auto-maker, and another benchmark will be reached this week. After September 30th, the tax credit for buyers of the Toyota Prius will be cut in half from $3,150 to $1,575. That's because the IRS limits the full credit when a car manufacturer sells 60,000 hybrids, which Toyota has well-surpassed.

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UNGER: Look for all-out Prius panic this week. Your friendly Toyotathon is going to be a blood bath. The National Guard, if they weren't already deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan and along our nation's borders, should be called up to protect Toyota dealerships from angry mobs - desperate, hybrid marauders searching, begging, pleading for a Prius before the tax incentive dries up and their only reason for owning one is environmentalism.

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UNGER: Increasingly, the incentive for owning a Prius or any hybrid car is not the cost-savings on gas or driving solo in the car-pool lane or free parking at meters or because Bill Clinton and Donny Osmond drive them, too. The real empowerment of a hybrid comes from looking a driver of an SUV square in the eye and saying bite me without having to say it.

A hybrid says I support the troops without a yellow ribbon on your bumper. It's both speeding-ticket deterrent and chick magnet. It says I'm slow, but deep down I care. It's the thrill of nearly getting T-boned when your engine falls silent in a busy intersection. It's adopting a glacier, not a highway.

Be proud, you Prius people who were hybrid before it was hip, who got their tax break when the break was good. Come Sunday, you hybrid hopefuls may pay a little more, but you'll still get the real benefit of knowing you're giving a symbolic middle finger to that cheese ball next to you in a Ferrari who feels big in his car, but small in his pants.

(Soundbite of song, "Yankee Doodle")

UNGER: And that is today's Unger Report. I'm Brian Unger.

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BRAND: By the way, Brian's traded in his Porsche for a hybrid. If you have thoughts about the Unger Report...

PESCA: As Brian's aim is to inform and to entertain...

BRAND: You can write to us.

PESCA: It's easy. Just go to the Web site, npr.org, and click on the contact us link. It's at the top of every page.

BRAND: DAY TO DAY is a production of NPR News with contributions from Slate.com. I'm Madeleine Brand.

PESCA: And I'm Mike Pesca.

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