Record-breaking sales of fuel-efficient vehicle

The Associated Press
Thursday June 14, 2001

LOS ANGELES — Amid soaring gas prices that topped $2 per gallon in some areas, nationwide sales of Honda’s electric-gasoline hybrid car reached record-breaking levels in May, company officials said Wednesday. 

Sales of the Insight two-door coupe last month were up 138 percent compared to May 2000. The sale of 903 Insights last month also broke the previous single-month record of 573, set in April. 

Pat Bennett, a 63-year-old retiree in Baton Rouge, La., was intrigued by the car’s compact shape and handling, along with its $12 monthly fuel bill. 

“I don’t fill up but maybe once a month,” she said.  

“To be honest, I don’t know what (the price of fuel) is right now because I haven’t been to the service station.” Honda executives and auto industry experts said buyers are interested in the Insight’s fuel efficiency – pitched by Honda as reaching up to 68 mpg on the highway – and sporty look and feel.  

And for the technologically advanced Palm Pilot-carrying crowd, owning a cutting-edge vehicle also is a draw. 

“With all the attention rising gas prices have received there has almost been as much attention on the Insight,” said Art Garner, a Honda spokesman. 

The average retail price of gasoline in a national survey Friday was $1.73 per gallon, down 3.48 cents from its May 18 price.  

San Francisco had an average price of $2.02 per gallon Friday. 

Dennis Virag, president of the Automotive Consulting Group Inc. in Ann Arbor, Mich., said he recently had noticed an increase in the number of Honda Insights on the road in his state. 

“I think it’s a very interesting product, No. 1, but, being an auto enthusiast and technology addict, to me it’s very intriguing technology,” Virag said.  

“I think it takes some time for (consumers) to become familiar with it and for the market to adapt, and certainly the increase in fuel costs is a major contributor” to the rise in sales. 

The Insight hit the market in December 1999, and it has taken awhile for both consumers and dealers to become familiar with it, Virag said.  

Drivers also had to learn about the vehicle’s hybrid technology, which doesn’t require it be plugged in to a charging station like the General Motors electric vehicle. 

Hybrids combine an electric motor with a gasoline engine to produce better mileage and less pollution. 

Bennett said she has been getting looks everywhere she goes since buying the vehicle in November for $17,900, $3,000 below its sticker price.  

In fact, she can’t leave the house without everyone in town knowing where she goes, Bennett said. 

“A lot of men were interested because it looks real sporty,” she said.  

“There was a time when I would attract that kind of attention myself – now it’s my vehicle.” 

The Insight is one of two such vehicles currently available. Toyota sells a four-seat hybrid called the Prius that boasts 45 mpg on the highway. The Prius, which started selling overseas in 1997, went on sale in the United States in July 2000. Toyota sold 872 models in April 2001 and 1,126 in May. 

Other gas-electric vehicles are in the works, including hybrid versions of the Honda Civic, the Chevrolet Suburban and the Ford Escape. 

Hybrid vehicles could receive a boost from Washington, D.C., if a proposal to give tax credits for the purchase of gas-electric vehicles is approved. President Bush proposed up to $10 billion in tax breaks over 10 years to boost energy supplies, conservation and alternatives.