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Hybrid vehicle sales hot in state, but supply is limited

There is one problem with hybrid car sales in Mississippi. There aren’t enough of them to meet the demand.

As consumers become increasingly concerned about the high price of gasoline, interest in the hybrid gasoline-electric vehicles that provide the best gas mileage in the marketplace has mushroomed.

Wayne Eldridge, sales manager for Gray Daniels Toyota, said there is a six- to nine-month waiting list to purchase a Toyota Prius at the dealership right now. The Prius is the number-one selling hybrid car in the U.S., accounting for about 64% of hybrid sales in 2004.

The Prius averages 52 miles per gallon (mpg) in the city and in the mid- to high-40s on the highway. Approximately 54,000 new Priuses were sold in the U.S. this past year, and currently an estimated 250,000 have been sold worldwide.

On the waiting list

Eldridge said because of the time it takes to order a new Prius, occasionally when a car comes in the person who ordered it will have backed off. When that happens, the dealership is able to sell the car to someone else in about 24 hours.

“I have 15 sales people who work for me here, and every one has a list of potential Prius clients,” Eldridge said. “This month we expect to have two unsold Prius by the end of the month, and our sales people are salivating to get them in.”

Toyota’s new Highlander Hybrid, a mid-sized SUV on a Camry frame, is going to be available in late June. Eldridge said they also expect great interest in the Highlanders. And the Prius should become more available in the future as Toyota is ramping up production to help meet the strong demand.

“People who buy them love the cars,” Eldridge said. “It appeals to such a broad band of people. We have sold them to people just out of college, and our last one was sold to a 73-year-old lady. We get e-mails and phone calls on these cars every day from as far away as San Diego to New York.”
The cars hold their value well, too. Eldridge said some people are paying $1,000 to $2,000 over the sticker price for a used Prius.

Robert Bozant, sales manager for Allen Toyota in Gulfport, also reports that basically every Prius they get is presold. But while Allen Toyota used to have a three- to six-month waiting period, that is now down to three to six weeks.

Because of the shortage, people who want to buy a Prius often can’t even get a test drive. Bozant said a lot of his customers went to Enterprise or Alamo to rent a Prius for a few days to make sure they liked it before ordering one.

“We couldn’t let them drive the cars we got in because they were already sold,” Bozant said. “And if a customer wants to come in to negotiate? We don’t have to negotiate because the next person in line will buy it for full sticker price. But that is good for customers because the car will retain its value.”

Non-hybrid options, too

He predicts that if gas prices remain high, hybrids sales will continue to do well. He said the dealership is also seeing a great deal of interest in the smaller, non-hybrid cars they sell that get good gas mileage such as the Echo, Scion and Corolla.

“Eight of 10 cars with Toyota get over 30 mpg, which is pretty awesome,” Bozant said, whose dealership gets four or five Priuses per month. “People are trying to get out of these SUVs that they paid $30,000 for and are worth half that in a year’s time.”

Sales are expected to only grow larger in the future as more choices are available to customers. By 2008, Toyota plans to have every model it sells available with a hybrid engine.
Honda also has hybrids available in its Civic, Insight and Accord models.

L.C. Bowens, sales representative with House of Honda in Tupelo, said last month they sold three hybrids.

“A lot of people are coming in looking and asking about them,” Bowens said. “Everyone seems interested in gas savings now. People are asking about the hybrid cars because they are getting better gas mileage and they are getting a tax break. It seems like it will be the car of the future, as far as I’m concerned.”

A growing market?

While Japanese automakers represent about 96% of the hybrid vehicle market, Ford Motor Company has entered the field. Ford’s Escape Hybrid SUV represents approximately 3% of the market in the U.S.

“The interest is fairly high,” said Leo Wilson, sales manager at Watson Quality Ford in Jackson. “We’ve only had two hybrid vehicles in so far. We have sold one and have the other one on the ground right now. People who are looking are interested in gas mileage. It is a little more expensive, maybe $2,000 more than a non-hybrid. The Escape Hybrids range in price from $26,000 to $33,000.”

Watson Quality Ford pre-sold its first Escape hybrid in February, and the woman who purchased it reported getting about 30 miles per gallon in the city and a little less on the highway.

“It is more effective in city driving because when you start and go, the electric battery kicks in,” Wilson said.

Overall sales of hybrid vehicles have grown nearly 1,000% since 2000. However, hybrids only represented 1% of the 17 million new vehicles sold in the U.S. in 2004. But about a dozen new hybrid models are on the design boards.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.


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