Hybrid vehicles on rise

By Marlena Hartz: CNJ staff writer

A small emblem on the back of Michael Lee’s silver SUV declares it different. It is a hybrid car, powered by gas and electricity. Lee, 54, a railroad engineer, wishes it were bigger.

“More people might ask me about the car,” Lee said, breaking slowly for a red light in his Toyota Highlander, while a digital computer screen, located above the hybrid’s traditional radio dials and temperature gauges, illustrated movement of the car’s three engines — one for each set of wheels and another for the car’s steering wheel.

The salt-and-pepper bearded Lee didn’t purchase the hybrid because he is a so-called tree hugger. “I can’t say I’m entirely environmentally-minded. If I was, I wouldn’t be driving an SUV,” Lee said. The motives behind his purchase are practical, but underlying that pragmatism is an air of rebelliousness, a love of progress, a certain philosophy.

And so falling into the role of hybrid car spokesperson doesn’t bother Lee, who was recently featured in a USA Today article. But most people, he said, friends, acquaintances, and strangers alike, don’t ask him about his car, which reduces air emissions, or why he drives it.

“Gas prices will continue to go up. I can drive this car, that has the same body as the last car I owned, and get 25 percent better gas mileage… It’s a way to thumb my nose at American car manufacturers and gas companies,” Lee said, with a light-hearted scoff.

Now seems to be the opportune time to do so. The average price for self-serve, regular unleaded gas in New Mexico wavered at about $2.53 per gallon Wednesday — about 20 cents more than the week before, and about 67 cents higher than last year, according to an New Mexico AAA press release.

The sale of hybrid vehicles is also on the rise. The price tag for a hybrid is generally $2,000 to $4,000 more than that of a standard gas-run vehicle, but with new designs and enticing tax-breaks, the cars are slowly earning a spot on the open road. Demand is actually outpacing supply, according to one local Honda dealer.

“I’ve got two on the way,” said Larry Roubison, general manager of Clovis’ Bender Honda-Nissan dealership. “They are selling faster than I can get them.”

The manager said he has sold three Honda Accord hybrids and one Honda Civic hybrid in the last month alone. The foreign car maker, however, puts a cap on the number of cars it funnels into the states, so Roubison can only order a select number of hybrids a month. Despite what he calls a steady growth in popularity, Roubison doesn’t envision hybrids ever ruling the road.

“Production from Honda will improve,” Roubison said. “But I don’t think everything (on my lot) would ever be all hybrid. The straight gasoline cars I sell still get good gas mileage.”

For Lee, though, the hybrid represents more than a car — it’s a mentality, one that he says American consumers are not ready to embrace. Lee points to a 1977 Jimmy Carter speech in which the former president forecasted an energy crisis, saying “we simply must balance our demand for energy with our rapidly shrinking resources.”

“The only thing that makes Americans care about energy is when it hits them in the wallets,” said a forward-looking Lee. Innovation and technology, he said, can alleviate the world’s resource crisis. His small hybrid investment, he said, is for his children and grandchildren, not himself.

Lee’s son, Chris, a screen designer and printer, also owns a hybrid. His is a compact, white Toyota Prius. His father-in-law, he said, gave him and his wife the car as a wedding gift. Although its back window is decorated with liberal bumper stickers, Chris, 24, is less apt than his father to engage in talk of an American energy crisis.

“When you own a hybrid,” Chris said, “you do kind of become a salesman for them, it makes me feel like I am doing my part to better the environment.”

Besides, he added, “cars have gone long enough without changing.”