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Spacecoast Living

Hybrid vehicles: The newest roadstars

By Anne Straub

Frank Said’s interest in hybrid vehicle technology comes as no surprise.

The Palm Bay resident takes pride in helping provide Floridians with power that burns no fossil fuels, through his job as a machinist at the Port St. Lucie nuclear power plant. The plant operates a hatchery for endangered sea turtles, placing a value on conservation that Said shares. A lifetime offshore fisherman, he sees preserving the environment as important for the future of his hobby.

So when automakers began introducing vehicles that burn far less gasoline than conventional engines, Said was intrigued – especially when he considered his 120-mile daily round-trip commute.

He now drives a Honda Civic hybrid to work everyday, and he estimates he gets at least 50 miles per gallon. Best of all, he doesn’t miss the carbon soot spewing from the exhaust pipe.

“You cannot tell the difference,” he said of the quality of the ride. “I don’t understand why more people don’t buy them.”

Though they still represent a small share of the overall market – just over 1.5 percent of 2006 new-vehicle registrations -- hybrid vehicles are getting attention as a possible tool for reducing emissions tied to global warming.

More than a quarter million new hybrids were registered in the United States in 2006, a 28 percent increase over 2005, according to research firm R.L. Polk & Co. By far the highest share was in California, where more than a quarter of the vehicles were registered. Second was Florida, accounting for a 5 percent share.

Half of new-vehicle shoppers are considering a hybrid, says a 2007 survey from information services firm J.D. Power and Associates. That’s down from 57 percent, a decline the company attributes to a more realistic expectation of gas mileage to be had with a hybrid. During the 2006 survey, consumers tended to overestimate the fuel efficiency of hybrid vehicles.

Still, the improvement is significant. For example, a conventional 2008 Ford Escape XLS gets an estimated 20 miles per gallon in the city and 26 on the highway. The hybrid version gets an estimated 34 miles per gallon in city driving and 30 miles per gallon on the highway. The 2007 Toyota Prius, the top-selling U.S. hybrid, gets 48 miles per gallon in the city and 45 on the highway, according to government estimates.

While gas savings will be immediate, buyers will have to wait to break even on their purchase. Expect to pay $2,000 to $5,000 more for a hybrid compared with a regular version of a similar model.

That doesn’t bother buyers who believe they’re making a statement with their purchase. “It’s more about the environment than it is about the gas money,” said Bob Greene, Southeastern Honda in Palm Bay.

Burning less gas means less greenhouse gas released into the environment: The federal government estimates each gallon of gas burned creates about 20 pounds of carbon dioxide. The cumulative effect of highway vehicles accounts for a quarter of the carbon dioxide emissions in the United States each year.

Hybrid vehicles combine the benefits of gasoline engines and electric motors to get more mileage out of each gallon of gas. Most hybrids today use batteries that are recharged during driving – no plugging in required. The system converts energy normally wasted during coasting and braking into electricity, which is stored in a battery until the electric motor needs it.

Some vehicles use the electric motor alone during low-speed driving around town, when traditional gas engines are less efficient. Or, the electric motor can provide a power boost to the gas engine during accelerating, passing or climbing a hill. Many vehicles employ an automatic shut off that kills the engine when the car comes to a stop and restarts when the accelerator is pressed. The idea is to prevent wasting energy during idling. The feature leaves the fan running but turns off the air conditioning – if that sounds like too high a commitment to the environment, the shut-off often can be disabled.

Hybrid buyers are split fairly evenly between those who are primarily concerned about the environment and those who are looking to save money on gas, said Bill Kennedy, general manager of Mike Erdman Toyota on Merritt Island. The Toyota Prius is the most popular hybrid, accounting for 43 percent of new registrations. Toyota also offers a Highlander and Camry hybrid.

“As many as they build, we sell them,” Kennedy said.

Brevard County car buyers seem to gravitate toward hybrid technology, possibly because of the area’s concentration of engineers, said Michael Cummings, general manager of Saturn Space Coast in West Melbourne. The dealership sold more than three times its allocation of hybrids in 2006. Saturn offers a hybrid VUE sport utility and a hybrid Aura midsize sedan.

Luxury vehicles are joining the trend. Lexus is introducing the LS 600h L, which will be available in limited numbers. Lexus of Melbourne shoppers also can choose from the GS450 sedan and RX400h sport utility in hybrid versions. “There’s plenty of luxury in these vehicles,” said sales manager Shaun Bozorg.

And the numbers remain environmentally friendly. The Mercury Mariner hybrid boasts 34 miles per gallon in city driving. “For an SUV, that’s pretty incredible,” said Jim Cavanaugh, general manager of Island Lincoln-Mercury Land Rover Jaguar on Merritt Island.

Expect to see more hybrids on the road, said John Millett, a spokesman for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The federal government is encouraging people to buy hybrids and other environmentally friendly vehicles by offering tax incentives. Hybrids bought or placed into service after Dec. 31, 2005, may be eligible for a federal income tax credit. For more information, visit www.fueleconomy.gov.
States can further sweeten the pot by allowing approved vehicles to use commuter lanes, even with just one occupant.
Hybrids have some competition for the green dollar, however. Alternative fuel vehicles, such as those that use compressed natural gas, also are gaining ground. They’re mostly the province of special fleets, such as city bus systems, because of the specialized nature of the fuel, Millett said.

But he expects diesels to come in to wider use as technology improves, making the diesel fuel burn as clean as gasoline. Diesel is more efficient than gas, offering 20 percent to 40 percent better mileage. Also watch for vehicles that run on gas blends with high ethanol content to spread beyond current use, primarily based in the Midwest. That’s where higher ethanol blends are more readily available, but the fuel gradually will be sold at more pumps nationwide. “We think that will happen,” Millett said.

In the meantime, local car dealers notice the popularity of hybrids rises in tandem with gas prices.

The appeal is undeniable. When Said drove his pickup truck to work in Port St. Lucie, he spent $700-plus on gasoline every month. The bill has plummeted with the hybrid. “I can make the car payment, buy gas and I still save a hundred bucks a month,” he said.

And he can rest assured he’s doing his part for the future of offshore anglers everywhere.