May 18, 2005

Hybrid Revolution Sweeping U.S. Roads

LOS ANGELES (AFP) -- Fuelled by the surge in oil prices, a car revolution is sweeping U.S. freeways with gas-guzzling mega-cars being forced off the road by smaller, cleaner hybrid automobiles.

Hollywood stars such as Brad Pitt and Cameron Diaz have made the dual electric and gas powered cars a chic item on Los Angeles boulevards. In the rest of the country, housewives who see their monthly bills rising are following the example.

Some buyers are waiting more than six months to get a new Toyota Prius while waiting times for a luxury Lexus RX 400 hybrid can take up to a year.

Some people are paying more than the price of a brand new car to get one second hand.

The United States has long been the land of the Sports Utility Vehicle (SUV), the four wheel drive giants that have dominated U.S. roads for decades.

Experts say the rising cost of gasoline is the main cause of a slump in SUV sales. But sales of the purring hybrids have been boosted by Hollywood filmstars.

"To my opinion, we are right before the explosion of sales," said Bradley Berman, the editor of http://www.hybridcars.com/, a website devoted to hybrid vehicles such as the Prius and Honda Insight.

Berman says that although sales of hybrids nationally have not even reached one percent of total vehicle sales, they have still doubled annually over the past two years.

Some 10,000 hybrid vehicles were sold across the United States in 2000, but sales are expected to rocket to 1.2 million units by 2008, according to research by Oak Ridge Labs.

California Governor Arnold Schawarzenegger proudly touts his gas-guzzling Hummer -- one of the biggest SUVs available -- but other public figures are turning against the big is beautiful status symbol.

Diaz, Pitt, and fellow film stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Kirk Douglas, Harrison Ford, Selma Hayek and Jack Nicholson have all joined the green revolution and added a hybrid to their auto stables.

Hummer sales plummeted 27.8 percent in April from a year ago, according to General Motors, while Ford Motor Co reported that sales of its Ford Explorer SUV fell 14.6 percent last month compared with April 2004.

"What you're seeing is a response to the high gas prices. During the 70s you saw people switch to smaller cars. It's a direct response to the gas hikes," said David Stewart, a professor of marketing at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

"More generally, Californians are more conscious of environmental issues, and air quality. And Californians spend a lot more of time in their automobiles," Stewart noted.

However, the rising popularity of such fuel-efficient vehicles -- which are driven by more complex technology that normal cars -- appears to have caught some manufacturers off guard as they vie to keep up with consumer demand.

A key attraction of hybrids, with oil prices averaging around 50 dollars a barrel, is that they sip gas rather than guzzle it.

An average SUV will consume about 20 liters (five gallons) of gas over a 100 kilometer (62 miles) trip compared to a hybrid which will take just four to five liters (1.1 to 1.3 gallons) of gas.

Another environmental benefit is that hybrids omit less polution than purely gas-driven vehicles.

"I decided to buy one because I hated to stay in traffic jams with my engine running. It eased my mind," said Joe Mellis, a 39-year-old Los Angeles real estate agent and hybrid enthusiast.

"The Prius doesn't eat gas when stalled. It's my second Prius since 2002, I bought the new model last year because it was larger," Mellis added.

Other proud owners believe such vehicles could help reduce U.S. dependence on Middle East oil and that with some hybrid models able to accelerate from zero to 60 miles an hour (96 kilometers an hour) in 6.5 seconds, owners won't be left in the slow lane.


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