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Gas prices fuel demand for hybrid cars

Ted Sturges of Vicksburg talks about his Toyota Prius, a gasoline-electric hybrid car.(Jon Giffin The Vicksburg Post)

[3/31/04]Hybrid cars are getting more than passing glances with recent increases in gasoline prices, sales managers of two local dealerships said.

Hopkins Toyota, 4105 E. Clay St., and Rogers Honda, 2939 N. Frontage Road, both offer cars powered by gas-electric engines and need their tanks filled far less often than conventional vehicles.

“We’ve had more people in the last couple of weeks to a month” than previously, said Herb Caldwell, sales manager of Rogers Honda.

One Honda with a gas-electric engine is a hybrid Civic. The company also makes a two-seat hybrid, the Insight, which can be delivered on order.

Caldwell said the one hybrid Civic in stock Monday, a used model, is getting attention from shoppers. “We’ve had a lot more traffic on that car since the increase in gas prices,” he said, adding eight to 10 hybrid Civics have been sold in the 18 months the car has been available.

Toyota’s hybrid is the Prius and is also increasingly popular said Mike Finney, general sales manager at the Hopkins dealership.

“We can’t keep them, we’re selling so many,” Finney said, adding that the dealership has sold about 10 cars over the past six months.

“People are calling all the way from California looking for them. Toyota wasn’t expecting to sell this many. If I had 20 on the lot I could sell all 20 immediately, for sticker.”

The Prius retails for $20,510, the Civic hybrid five-speed for $20,140, including freight.

One Vicksburg customer, Ted Sturges, had his own company that designed a gas-electric vehicle in 1968 and 1969. He said he followed the technology through the years, yet had waited until the current Prius model to purchase his first hybrid vehicle.

“It has exceeded my expectations, and I had some high expectations because 36 years ago I designed a vehicle similar to this,” Sturges said. “It had many of the same characteristics, so to find a production version and an updated production version at that was a delight.”

Sturges’ company, Minivan Corp., “designed the world’s first minivan, using a good many Volkswagen components,” he said.

Sturges had spent 25 years in aerospace engineering before starting the company, he said. He planned to put the gas-electric minivan into mass production, but financial backing fell through, he added.

“This is what I dreamed I’d be doing all those years ago,” he said.

The new Prius gets about 64 miles per gallon in town and about 55 on the highway, Sturges said.

He said the more-efficient electric motor takes over when driving around town, reversing the traditional way of thinking about which type of driving results in better gas mileage.

On the other hand, some get the traditionally better mileage on the highway. The Civic, for example, ranges up to 48 mpg in city driving and 51 on the highway.

Another Vicksburg resident who test-drove a Prius within the past month said he would strongly consider buying one the next time he is in the market for a new car.

“I was very impressed with the combination of performance, gas mileage and the size and comfort of the vehicle,” said Jim Clausner, an engineer at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Engineer Research and Development Center.

Clausner also cited more than economics as a motivation. “I’m concerned about the environment and see this as a technology that can save gas, cut down on pollution and reduce our dependence on foreign oil,” he said.

Sturges said one of the first questions people usually ask about the Prius is about its acceleration.

“The acceleration is fantastic, and why wouldn’t it be?” he said. Electric motors are good at producing torque, which can be more important than horsepower when accelerating up to a speed of, say 40 mph, he added.

The torque the Prius generates over that range, for example, is “about as much as you’d find in a good-sized truck,” he said.