RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And fuel efficiency is the topic of our Monday focus on technology. Toyota has sold one million Prius hybrids worldwide, making it the most popular hybrid vehicle on the market. But even though Prius sales are strong in the U.S., sales of many other hybrids are not. A recent survey suggests the number of people interested in buying a hybrid has actually dropped in the past year.
From Seattle, NPR's Wendy Kaufman has more.
WENDY KAUFMAN: One hundred eighty thousand hybrid cars and SUVs were sold in the U.S. in the first six months of the year. That's about three percent of total sales.
Robert and Inga Froying(ph), both retired schoolteachers, were among the buyers. Like so many others, they chose the Toyota Prius.
Mr. ROBERT FROYING (Retired Schoolteacher): When we were first married and didn't have a pot, we did have a pastel blue Beetle. And there was a certain coziness about it. And this car has something of that quality.
Mr. INGA FROYING (Retired Schoolteacher): This brings it back. This brings it back - for our old age.
(Soundbite of laughter)
KAUFMAN: But it's more than the romance. Chatting in the service bay of a suburban Seattle dealer, the Froyings talk about the technology, environmental benefits, and of course the fuel efficiency.
The four-cylinder, five-passenger car consistently gets more than 50 miles to the gallon in combined city and highway driving. But while the Prius has become mainstream - indeed it was the sixth best-selling car in the month of May - many of the other hybrids on the market have fallen short.
Mr. RUSTY HEFFNER (Market Analysis Director, Hybridcars.com): Some of the companies kind of put a toe in the water.
KAUFMAN: Rusty Heffner is director of market analysis at hybridcars.com.
Mr. HEFFNER: The Saturn or a hybrid is a really good example the car has gotten lots of media attention, at least the conventional version of the car; it won car of the year. And the hybrid version, I haven't seen any ads for it. It doesn't really seem to have been marketed very heavily. The dealers don't seem to really be pushing it. And as a result, not that many units are going out the door.
KAUFMAN: Other factors may be at work too. Buyers may lack confidence in an automaker's hybrid technology, or fear that the company won't support hybrids over the long term. Or in some cases it's simply that the fuel economy isn't all that great. And while overall hybrid sales are up substantially over last year, a recent survey by J.D. Power suggested that the number of people interested in hybrids actually dropped, from 57 to 50 percent.
Consumers understand that the fuel economy they are likely to get will be less than what's on the window sticker, and as Michael Omatoso of J.D. Power points out, the price premium for hybrids is often thousands of dollars.
Mr. MICHAEL OMATOSO (Powertrain Forecasting Director, J.D. Power): So if you do the math, you'll see that it's not necessarily a good deal.
KAUFMAN: At the same time, some gas-only models have become very fuel-efficient, and as more clean diesels enter the U.S. market, consumers are showing an increased interest in those.
Still, Prius sales continue to mount. Getting a boost from something a bit intangible - image. And what the car says about those who buy them.
Mr. GEORGE SULLOCK(ph) (Software Programmer): The first reason I bought my car is that 10 years from now I didn't want to be embarrassed. Because 10 years from now, if you don't have a hybrid, you're not going to be in.
KAUFMAN: Prius owner George Sullock is a software programmer.
Mr. SULLOCK: I kind of looked at Prius as a way of redefining cars. And I was looking for something that was on the edge.
KAUFMAN: He's not alone. According to another survey by J.D. Power, image was the number one reason for buying a Prius. Again, Michael Omatoso.
Mr. OMATOSO: A lot of people buy hybrids because of what it says about them as a car buyer, just like people buy sports cars to project a certain image. So with the hybrid buyer, a lot of it is, hey, look at me, I'm environmentally conscious.
KAUFMAN: The Prius, he continues, does that best, while many other hybrids, including the Honda Civic and Ford Escape look almost identical to their conventionally powered counterparts. The Prius was designed from the ground up, as a hybrid-only car.
But lest hybrid owners get too cocky about their individual contribution to a cleaner environment, consider this sobering observation. The U.S. Department of Energy says in the seven years that hybrids have been available here, the total amount of gasoline saved adds up to less than the amount that the U.S. imports every day.
Wendy Kaufman, NPR News.