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Dave Whippy of Alamo with his Toyota Prius hybrid. (Mark DuFrene/Contra Costa Times)

When Jeanne and Henri Lese of San Rafael bought a hybrid in 2001, their mileage zoomed some 17 miles a gallon, even though their former car was a Toyota Camry. They've never looked back.

"It gets great mileage, it has low emissions, and it's a really cool car," said Jeanne Lese.

Maybe your mechanic just tolled the death knell for your SUV, and that very day a spiffy little Prius zipped past you on the freeway. Or, like the Leses, you're reeling from sticker shock and want to save on gas.

Regardless, if you've decided to buy a hybrid, you're part of a growing trend. U.S. hybrid sales jumped 38 percent to 350,000 units sold last year, with Toyota dominating the market, according to Hybridcars.com. Of course, around 16 million cars sell in the United States annually, so there's still a ways to go, but hybrid sales are predicted to triple by 2018, to 900,000 units, or 5 percent of the overall U.S. market.

The pros of owning a hybrid are the gas savings and the benefit to the environment. But you need to shop smart to get the best deal, because these cars generally are priced $2,500 to $5,000 more than standard vehicles. Even with gas prices kissing $4 a gallon, the savings might not offset that higher purchase price over the life of the car, so it's important to do your homework. Tax incentives are available for some hybrids, but not the popular Toyota Prius. (See accompanying story for more information.)


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Here are some tips to help you get the best vehicle, and a look at upcoming developments in the hybrid world.

First, a bit of background: Hybrids combine a traditional gas-powered engine with rechargeable electric batteries to get better fuel efficiency — more than 40 miles per gallon for hybrid cars in some cases — and lower emissions. They don't have to be plugged in, just fueled up at the pump as you would a regular car.

The biggest difference with hybrids is the uncanny silence when you're sitting at a traffic light. The engine shuts down during stops to save energy.

That uncanny silence doesn't just make it possible to catch every word of Taylor Swift's "Our Song" (though this, too, is important, obviously.) It also has a higher purpose.

"When your car is idling or running at low speeds, it spits out way more hydrocarbon, carbon monoxide and other harmful emissions," said Toyota spokesman Bill Kwong. "But when a hybrid is sitting there, the engine is off, so it's not polluting." When you multiply that one car by the 23 million registered vehicles in California, that's thousands of tons of carbon you're sparing the air.

Dave Whippy of Alamo bought his Prius in 2005 because he wanted to leave some natural resources for future generations. "I want to do my part to slow global warming," he said, "and I feel it is my duty to help reduce our foreign trade deficit."

Whippy boasts that he's able to get as much as 60 miles a gallon. Of course, your mileage may (literally) vary; Toyota lists Prius mileage as 46 mpg average.

"I had a Volkswagen Jetta," Whippy said. "The Prius has more room and gets better mileage. It's comfortable for me. I'm 6 feet, 5 inches; I'm a big guy."

Whippy chose the Prius because at the time it got better mileage than the Honda Civic Hybrid, another leading alternative. (Current estimates from Honda: 45 highway, 40 city.) Whippy used Consumer Reports to research the purchase, a resource the Leses also used.

"It looks like the Toyota Prius will pay itself off for the average consumer driving 12,000 miles annually owning the car for five years," said Jeff Bartlett, deputy auto editor at ConsumerReports.org. An April 2006 CR study of six hybrid models indicated that the Honda Civic Hybrid also will save motorists money.

The Prius starts at $23,000 and tops out at about $28,000, according to JD Flakoll, a sales executive at Toyota's Walnut Creek dealership. "It's our No. 1 selling vehicle."

Indeed, the Prius is the country's best-selling hybrid, with 181,221 Prius selling in 2007. (In answer to one of the most pressing questions regarding this car, the plural is "Prius," not "Priuses" or "Prii," Toyota's Kwong informed MediaNews.) Toyota's Camry hybrid is its second-best-selling hybrid.

If you have lots of kids or just want a bigger, higher-performance vehicle, a hybrid SUV is a possibility. Just don't kid yourself that you're saving a whole lotta gas, experts say.

"The Toyota Highlander hybrid is over $40,000, depending on how it's equipped. It's a lot more premium experience, has a lot of horsepower," said Consumer Reports' Bartlett. The vehicle gets more than 20 miles a gallon, not bad as SUVs go, but far less than even nonhybrid mid-size sedans.

While Prius (there's that plural again) are easily available — "we usually have about 20 on hand," Flakoll said — a recent report by San Francisco-based Wired.com. indicated that hybrid SUVs are a different story. For example, a Bay Area Saturn dealership reported that the wait for a hybrid Vue is roughly six to eight weeks.

Speaking of waiting, you may be wondering if this is the right time to buy a hybrid. "Everyone's waiting for the plug-in electric hybrid," said Phil Reed, senior consumer advice editor at online automotive site Edmunds.com.

Some of the loudest buzz surrounds the Chevy Volt, a plug-in hybrid General Motors aims to have in showrooms by November 2010. Described as "the No. 1 priority project we have here at GM" by Frank Weber, Chevrolet Volt global vehicle chief engineer, it's estimated that the Volt would sell in the $30,000 to $40,000 range.

The vehicle is designed to run purely on electricity from on-board batteries for up to 40 miles.

Meanwhile, Toyota is promising a fleet of battery-powered plug-in hybrids by early 2010.

"There is better technology on the horizon," said Bartlett. "But there isn't a big change that is going to come in 12 months." When it comes to the Volt, Bartlett said, "No slight to Chevy, but I wouldn't buy the first one out of the factory. Don't buy the first generation — that's good general advice for any car. Buy your Prius now and reconsider in a few years."

Reach Janis Mara at 925-952-2671 or jmara@bayareanewsgroup.com. Check out her energy blog at www.ibabuzz.com/energy.

How a hybrid works
You push the little valve down, and the music goes down and around well, not quite.
  • The first thing you notice when you start up a hybrid is how quiet it is. If you are in a Toyota or Ford hybrid (and some GM models), the internal combustion engine gets cranked up, then shut downs once it warms up. At this point, the electric motor is now online, while the conventional engine remains dormant until needed. The Toyota or Ford hybrid stays in electric mode until about 15 mph.
  • At low speeds, the careful driver is effectively operating an electric car, burning no gas and creating no exhaust. Depending on how hard you step on the gas pedal, the car's computer will determine how much power to draw from the internal combustion engine and how much power to pull from the car's electric motor.
    -- Thanks and a tip of the MediaNews hat to www.hybridcars.com