Hybrid SUVs Are Missing in Action
MICHEL NORRIS, host:
Say you care about the environment, but you also have a large family or lots of stuff to haul. If you're looking for a new car, you might consider a hybrid SUV as the perfect solution.
But as NPR's Elizabeth Shogren found out, good luck trying to find one.
(Soundbite of Ford Escape ad)
KERMIT THE FROG: (Singing) It's not that easy being green.
ELZABETH SHOGREN: In this TV ad, Kermit the Frog mountain bikes along a rocky trail, kayaks through white water, and struggles to climb up a steep mountain. But at the top, he comes across a shiny SUV.
(Soundbite of Ford Escape ad)
KERMIT THE FROG: Hmm, I guess it is easy being green.
Unidentified Man: The 36-mile-per-gallon Ford Escape hybrid.
SHOGREN: Mike Warden(ph) might disagree with that. He and his wife recently went looking to buy an Escape hybrid at a Ford dealership in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Mr. MIKE WARDEN (Resident, Colorado): And after we had been there for about two hours after the test drive, and looking at the different colors, and going through all the options, you know, I finally ask, well, can we get a price on the one that we'd like to order.
SHOGREN: The dealer didn't have any hybrids in stock. So ordering was the only option. The salesman disappeared for 15 or 20 minutes to speak with his manager and returned with some news.
Mr. WARDEN: Oh, I forgot to tell you, all Escapes we order have a $5,000 dollar mark-up for the dealer. And at that point, you know, we said okay, thanks, and left.
SHOGREN: Warden and his wife wanted to save money on gas and help the environment by buying a hybrid. But with the mark-up, the price would have hit $37,000, $11,000 more than the gasoline version.
Mr. WARDEN: Whatever gas savings we'd get with the hybrid, it would probably take longer than we would own that vehicle to make that money back from the mark-up.
SHOGREN: Warden went to Internet chatrooms and found that his experience was hardly unique. Dealers across the country are jacking up the price of Escapes and other hybrid SUVs, the same way they would put premiums on fancy sports cars. Would-be hybrid buyers also tell stories of waiting months for cars they've ordered and giving up in frustration.
Mr. CHRISTIAN FACKRELL (Manager, Jerry's Ford in Annandale, Virginia): Unfortunately, they don't make any nonprofit car dealerships.
SHOGREN: Christian Fackrell, a manager at Jerry's Ford in Annandale, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, is unapologetic about the mark-ups his dealership puts on hybrid Escapes.
Mr. FACKRELL: Right now it's $3,995.
SHOGREN: Almost $4,000. By contrast, the dealer is offering discounts of several thousand dollars on almost every other vehicle, including the gasoline Escape. Jerry's is a big dealership, so Fackrell says he has an easier time than most getting hybrids on his lot. Still, he only gets a few a month, and customers end up ordering about half of the hybrid Escapes the dealer sells. That isn't true for any other car. Fackrell wishes Ford would make more hybrids.
Mr. FACKRELL: If there was an abundance of them, I'm sure they would sell like hotcakes.
SHOGREN: But Said Deep, a Ford spokesman, says the company has no plans to significantly increase production.
Mr. SAID DEEP (Spokesman, Ford Motor Company): The factory that makes them in Kansas is running at two shifts and working Saturdays to kind of keep up with demand.
SHOGREN: Deep says in the first two months of this year, hybrid sales were up 12 percent. Still, the hybrids only make up about 10 percent of all Escapes sold. And it's not just the Ford hybrids that are scarce. If you don't live in California, you have almost no chance of finding a Saturn Vue Green Line - that company's hybrid SUV.
Company spokesman Michael Morrissey says most dealers have been out of stock since last fall because the company is having supply problems with the hybrid battery.
Mr. MORESI (Spokesman, Saturn): And that's one of the growing pains. When you have hybrids that are relatively new technology, there's only so much manufacturing capacity of hybrid batteries in the world right now.
SHOGREN: Hybrids may be hard to find, but that's not keeping car companies from flooding the airwaves with ads.
(Soundbite of hybrid ad)
Unidentified Man: Right! And are hybrids big?
Unidentified Child: No.
Unidentified Man: They're teensy-weensy, aren't they?
Unidentified Group: Yes.
Unidentified man: Wrong. This is America's first full-sized hybrid SUV: Chevy Tahoe.
SHOGREN: GM has been pushing the Tahoe and its sister hybrid, the Yukon, during the Super Bowl and March Madness. The company says they're great for P.R.
The fact that we've gotten such good press on the vehicle and it's lifting the image for the entire company.
SHOGREN: But Chevy spokesman Mark Closson(ph) admits you won't find them at most dealership even if you are willing to shell out upwards of $60,000.
Mr. MARK CLOSSON (Spokesman, Chevy): We've taken a really different approach about the distribution with this vehicle.
SHOGREN: There are only about 1,500 hybrid Tahoes to share across the country. So, only a small fraction of Chevy dealers have been allotted one. Customers can come in for a test drive, but they can't expect to drive one home anytime soon.
Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News.