Occasionally someone walks into Toyota of Berkeley and wants to pick out the color of his new Prius. “I explain the procedure to them and also talk to them about the possibility of purchasing a used Prius, which many people don’t realize we have available immediately,” says sales rep Simone Campbell.

“Procedure” means getting on a long waiting list. At present, the Berkeley dealership, which sells more Priuses than any other in North America, has a waiting list of about 300 customers. “We tell people the average wait time for a Prius is 10 to 12 months,” says Campbell. “We get the lion’s share of Priuses and deliver them in less time whenever possible.”

Toyota Motors introduced its first hybrid car to the US market in August 2000. Named Prius, from the Latin for “first,” it debuted at $19,995, and 5,562 were sold between August and December of 2000. By contrast, in one month, this July, Toyota sold 5,230 Priuses and is predicted to sell 45,000 by year’s end. The Prius has been the fastest-selling car in the country for ten straight months, meaning it spends less time on the lot than any vehicle on the market. Prius owners receive a one-time $2,000 tax credit from the federal government, and the car has won numerous kudos, including the EPA’s First Annual Global Climate Protection Award and the 2004 Motor Trend Car of the Year.

Tired of the high cost of maintaining his Volkswagen Jetta, Allen Wagner of Los Angeles first checked out the hybrid in January of 2002. “I was tired of my Jetta constantly breaking down and noticed how many Toyotas I saw on the road. I didn’t know too much about the Prius and initially went to the Toyota dealership looking for a fuel-efficient vehicle like the Tercel or Corolla. The more I learned about the Prius, the better it sounded.” After a test drive, Allen was sold. “I am a pretty big guy, six-three, and one of my concerns was head space and leg room. When I first got into the car I was shocked at how spacious it was. It had much more room than many of the SUVs I had been test-driving. It’s like a small car that really isn’t a small car.”

The Prius has a standard clean-air resin gas tank that contracts as fuel is used, so there are fewer evaporative emissions. It is classified as a PZEV (partial zero emission vehicle) by the California Air Resources Board. The electric engine is automatically charged when the car is using the fuel engine, so there is no need to plug in the vehicle. The estimated EPA fuel economy for the Prius is 52 mpg in the city and 45 mpg on the highway. The higher city rating reflects the electric engine’s low-speed efficiency and the automatic shutoff of the gas engine when stopped. In this “stealth” electrical mode, the Prius generates no emissions, and fuel consumption is cut in half. “I was very impressed by the electric engine,” says Allen. “For some reason people think that it is going to reduce the performance and power of the vehicle, but it doesn’t. I’ve gotten it up to 85 on the open road and it performs great.”

Toyota Motors recently announced plans to increase production of the Prius and is slated to release the Toyota Highlander hybrid SUV and a half-ton pickup hybrid in 2005. Not to be outdone, the Ford Motor Company has introduced the hybrid Escape SUV that looks almost identical to its conventionally powered predecessor. Within the next year, all of the major automakers are poised to follow suit by offering hybrid models of already established vehicles.

The hybrids are embroiled in controversy: a bill passed by the California Senate but stalled in the Assembly would allow a single driver in a Prius or Honda Civic to use the carpool lane. (Currently only motorcycles and electric and natural gas vehicles get that perk.) The idea, according to Democratic sponsor Fran Pavley, would be to reward drivers who choose cars with significantly fewer emissions. But the bonus, which demands that cars achieve 45 mpg, wouldn’t extend to the Escape, which manages 36 mpg, far better than similar sized SUVs but not in the Prius range. Ford CEO Bill Ford says the proposal “amounts to a ‘Buy Japanese’ bill,” and the company tried to change the bill’s language to allow 35 mpg cars in the quick lane.

Transportation experts worry that carpool lanes are already overtaxed; adding Priuses might slow the lanes further, changing a plum to a penalty. All might be much ado about nothing: since the feds provide much of the money for highways, significant changes to carpool regulations require them to agree, and that hasn’t happened yet.

Bottom line: Toyota Motor spokesman Irv Miller says he believes the company could sell twice as many Priuses if enough were available. The only problem with the Prius is its scarcity.•t

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