In Times Of Cheap Gas, Hybrid Sales Stall

With gas prices under $2 in some places, the sales of hybrids such as the Toyota Prius have fallen. Toyota has sold about half as many Priuses in November as it did in November 2007. Fans of the cars say they are not worried, however.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This is All Things Considered from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block. As we've reported, the auto companies' CEOs were back on Capitol Hill today. They drove from Detroit to Washington in hybrids. And the head of GM arrived at the Capitol in a test version of the Chevy Volt, an electric car - if nothing else, certainly a PR move to show Congress that the companies are serious about modernizing their fleets. But when it comes to the bottom line, hybrid sales aren't what they used to be. As NPR's Martin Kaste reports, there's a glut on many dealers' lots.

MARTIN KASTE: It doesn't take long these days to get the attention of a salesman at the Toyota dealership in downtown Seattle.

These are all '09s, right?

Unidentified Dealer: These are. Yeah. All the Priuses we have here are '09s.

KASTE: OK.

Unidentified Dealer: Yes. Everything a Prius can offer is on here.

KASTE: On this particular lot, there are two whole rows of Priuses ready to go. It's quite the contrast with the days of $4 gasoline this summer. Then there were waitlists, two or three months minimum. And some people were actually paying more for used Priuses just so that they could get one right away. Sales Manager Lin Loya says as recently as September he'd have two or three Prius shoppers a day. Not now.

Mr. LIN LOYA (Sales Manager, Toyota of Seattle): Currently one, maybe one and a half on average a day.

KASTE: And are there any serious buyers right now?

Mr. LOYA: No, they tend to be tentative on the Prius.

KASTE: In fact, November Prius sales were down 50 percent over this time last year. Hybrid Camrys and Honda Civics are seeing similar declines. Brad Berman edits HybridCars.com.

Mr. BRAD BERMAN (Editor, HybridCars.com): Their waiting lists are gone, and so are the premiums.

KASTE: When it comes to hybrid technology, Berman says American car buyers seem to be, as he puts it, fairly fickle.

Mr. BERMAN: There's definitely a correlation between the price at the pumps and interest in fuel efficiency. It's an obvious economic equation.

KASTE: At the same time, Berman believes there is a hard core of hybrid buyers who take a longer view on gas prices and conservation.

Mr. BERMAN: There's another factor, and that is that higher fuel-efficiency standards are on the way. And when you look at the numbers in terms of where we need to get over the course of the next decade, it's almost impossible to get there without some level of hybridization.

KASTE: But you don't have to buy a Prius to get good gas mileage. Some little cars get mileage that's almost as good, and they're a lot cheaper. Lonnie Miller, a car industry analyst at R. L. Polk, says with this economic crisis, some drivers may reassess whether pricey hybrid technology is really the only way to save gas.

Mr. LONNIE MILLER (Director of Industry Analysis, R. L. Polk): You are going to pay anywhere from two to four to six thousand dollars more premium on some of them. And that's a hard pill to swallow right now.

KASTE: But long term, Miller is bullish on hybrids. After all, there are already more than a million of them on American roads.

Mr. MILLER: They're not going to die. This was a not a four, five, six year, you know, experiment with hybrids.

KASTE: It may no longer be an experiment, but hybrids still aren't quite mainstream either. American car companies were slow to adopt the technology, and only got religion during the recent spike in gas prices. They are rushing new hybrid models to market next year. And if Congress comes up with a bailout, it's likely it will keep up the pressure. Still, if the economy stays bad and gas stays this cheap, there just aren't going to be as many Americans willing to pay extra for that hybrid badge. Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.

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