Cars that run on mix of electricity and gas are so popular in L.A. that buyers must wait months to get their own

So-called "greens" and auto enthusiasts in Los Angeles have one thing in common these days: a passion for a new vehicle that it seems neither group can get enough of.

Car-crazy Angelenos are making quick work of the area's limited supply of hybrid electric vehicles, also known as HEVs. At Keyes Toyota in Van Nuys, you can look at a Toyota Prius or a Honda Insight HEV, but you can't touch: The dealership has a four- to five-month backlog of orders.

Fleet manager Robert Metz says people who test-drive the 2001 Prius are "continually surprised" at the high performance of this low-emission vehicle.

Right now, only the Prius and Insight are available for sale in L.A. County. But if you can stand to wait a few more months, you'll have a slew of additional makes to consider as HEVs are debuted by Ford, General Motors, DaimlerChrysler, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Fiat, Renault and Subaru.

Although the all-electric EV-1 is still available for lease from some L.A.-area Saturn dealerships, nearly four years after General Motors went on the air with a memorable TV commercial lamps, toasters and other appliances unplugging themselves and scurrying out the door to catch a glimpse of a sleek, battery-powered sedan that promised to set America free from foreign oil and choking smog the car is still conspicuously absent from L.A. streets. Frustrated with its relatively short range (40 to 60 miles on a full charge), reliability issues, indifferent dealers and a lack of convenient charging stations, the public stayed away from the electric car in droves.

So, instead of spending the night wired up to a plug-in wall charger, HEVs use a small, clean-burning gas-powered engine to charge a battery pack, which in turn powers a peppy electric motor. Since the gasoline engine only runs when charging the battery, and automatically shuts off when the car is stopped, the gas-guzzling effects of fast starts and stops, long idling times and variable acceleration are eliminated, squeezing far more energy out of the same gallon of gas.

Even better, HEVs can actually take advantage of stop-and-go driving with "regenerative braking," which uses the electric motor to slow the car, taking energy usually wasted as heat during braking and using it to charge the batteries.

The end product of all this technology is a vehicle that can travel from L.A. to San Francisco and back again, all on a single 10-gallon tank of gas, meanwhile generating less than a quarter of the pollution of a 1999 model year passenger car.

So who wants one?

Everyone will, as soon as they know about it, says Thad Malesh, director of advanced automotive technology for J.D. Powers and Associates. Participating dealerships can be located on the Web sites of both car companies.

"There is a whole segment of the population that is interested in the qualities of an HEV, but is unaware that the technology is actually in the marketplace," says Malesh. "When our survey explained what an HEV was and its benefits, the response was very clear: We want one. Clearly, as more people become aware of these vehicles, they are going to be very interested in the high mileage and environmental savings HEVs can offer them."

Although the market for SUVs and light trucks shows no signs of slowing down in the near future, Malesh predicts that ever-rising gasoline prices will bring even hardcore SUV owners into an HEV showroom eventually.

"Early 2000 couldn't have been a better time to launch a vehicle like the Prius or Insight," he said. "The spikes in gas prices, the talk of uncertainty at OPEC, Clinton's release of a portion of the strategic oil reserve, are all making drivers more aware of gas mileage and its relationship to their pocketbook.

"People who drive small cars have always been interested in gas mileage, but now even SUV owners are more interested than they used to be. That doesn't mean they are going to change what they buy, but it does mean that if you offer, say, a Ford Explorer with the gas mileage of a hybrid for only a few thousand dollars more (than a gas-powered vehicle), there will certainly be a market for that."

Malesh isn't sure exactly how much more even environmentally aware consumers will be willing to pay for an HEV, but surveys indicate that well-heeled baby boomers in particular will most likely overcome their sticker shock and buy green.

"It might be that they're just plain fed up with looking at dirty skies and hearing the news about toxic leakages into the water supplies," suggests Malesh.

Fertile ground

L.A.'s lingering air quality problem makes the city fertile ground for both HEV manufacturers and buyers. Faced with tight regulations on exhaust emissions imposed by the California Air Resources Board (CARB), auto manufacturers who want to sell cars (which account for nearly 40 percent of the area's pollution) here in the coming years will make sure that HEVs and other low-emission vehicles are available and reasonably priced to purchase and repair, says Malesh.

"Much like an electric golf cart, it has very good low-end torque and some real pep in the acceleration," Metz says. "Beyond the 600-mile range, the difference between this HEV and a normal gas-powered car is hard to tell. It's not a racecar, but the speed and pickup are comparable to a normal car."

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