Year of the hybrid 

Customers wait months for a Prius

Not too long ago, talk of fuel-efficient hybrid vehicles conjured up visions of egghead tree-huggers driving funny-looking future cars. But that changed this year when average gasoline prices climbed to nearly $2 a gallon, stayed there, and thrifty and eco-friendly cars became all the rage.

This year, sales of the hybrid Toyota Prius -- first introduced in America in 2000 -- went through the roof, far outstripping demand. It now takes the average American consumer nine months to obtain keys to a new Prius.

The car's main attraction is an average gas mileage of 55 miles per gallon. It achieves this by employing both a standard internal-combustion engine as well as an electric motor.

"We don't take deposits anymore," said Bob McCann, new-car manager at Liberty Toyota, where the average wait -- currently 60 persons deep -- for a 2005 Prius is around nine months. "It's not fair to the customer and it's too long."

"People wanted them but they couldn't have them, so they wanted them more" said Ted Sykes, sales manager at Toyota of Colorado Springs in Motor City, where the waiting list currently stands at around four months.

Celebrities such as Cameron Diaz and Brad Pitt fueled the rage by owning and driving Prius vehicles, making the hybrid the most talked-about vehicle in fashion as well as automotive circles.

Ford, with its Escape hybrid SUV, and Honda, which developed hybrid versions of both the Accord and Civic for 2005, are trying to cash in as well on the emerging market. But the Prius remains dominant.

Toyota has struggled to keep up. In August, the company increased production by 50 percent and will expand production to 100,000 cars in 2005. That's the same number of Prius cars sold between 2000 and 2004, said Allison Takahashi, spokeswoman for Toyota. "That should hopefully take care of the people on the waiting list."


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