Prius Diaz & The Hollywood Hybrids

Jim Motavalli - Wheels

Hybrid cars are hip. At a recent movie premiere, five Toyota Priuses pulled up next to each other. Larry David, co-creator of Seinfeld and star of HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm, is just one of many Hollywood celebrities who drives one. "I liked the idea of getting the benefits of a hybrid vehicle without having to plug in a battery," he said in an interview. "And after I test-drove the car, I liked everything about it. So now I'm a big fan."

Leonardo DiCaprio is vocal about his hybrid. "I own a Toyota Prius; it's a step in the right direction," he says. "It's a gasoline-electric midsize car that gets about 50 miles per gallon. There is no extra inconvenience; I fill it up at the gas pump and it performs like any other car. But I fill it up about once every three weeks. We have the technology to make every car produced in America today just as clean, cheap and efficient." 

Can you buy publicity like this? Actress Cameron Diaz goes on the Jay Leno show and all she wants to talk about is her Prius. "It gets 52 miles per gallon," she told Leno, who generally likes cars with more horsepower. "In the city. Isn't that exciting? The craziest thing is, 'cause all of a sudden you just, like, you're sitting at the stop sign? And you can't hear anything? And you're like, 'Omigod! My car has died!' And then all of a sudden you step on the gas and you're going again. But you know what? It's just like a golf cart, Jay. You know how guys love their golf carts."

Leno saw his opening. "Oh, man, yeah, you want to impress a guy with a car, you say, 'It's just like a golf cart! Man, this thing goes like a golf cart!' Whoa." OK, Leno doesn't get it, but an increasing number of Americans do. I'm no huge fan of celebrity endorsements, but if Hollywood's greens help to educate the public about something so important, I'm all for it. (And I haven't even mentioned actor Ed Begley, Jr., who's so committed he won't even ride in a gas-powered car.)

As of March 31, Toyota had sold 100,000 hybrid cars worldwide, 27,000 of which were U.S. Prius cars. Honda's sales of its Insight two-seater have been much lower, but the introduction of the all-new Civic Hybrid should change that. Honda is projecting sales of 2,000 to 2,500 a month, based on surveys like that done recently by the prestigious J.D. Power and Associates, which found that 60 percent of 5,200 new car buyers would consider buying a hybrid. There's also the undeniable fact that the Clean Car Campaign has collected 100,000 signatures from people who say they'll take the plunge, too.

I spent a week with the Civic Hybrid last week, and was so impressed that I'm trying to convince my wife that we should buy one. It's not so I'll have something in common with Leonardo DiCaprio. The Civic Hybrid impresses with its sheer ordinariness. It's not special, or weird, or for purists only. It's just like any other Civic, except it's a Super Ultra Low Emission Vehicle, gets 52 miles per gallon and has a range of 600 miles. If there's a sacrifice, it's in the $20,000 purchase price. But even that can be offset with a $2,000 federal income tax credit, and state incentives if they apply.

To get 93 horsepower out of a 1.3-liter engine requires some wizardry, and under the hood is the Integrated Motor Assist system from the Insight, plus a continuously variable transmission (CVT). As Ms. Diaz noted so memorably, it does indeed shut down at stoplights. My prediction is that the Civic Hybrid will outsell the Prius and set the stage for a blizzard of new hybrid vehicles, starting with the Ford Escape hybrid next year. Is the hybrid the new SUV?

Tailpipe Tactics:
Landmark legislation in California promotes small cars

The auto industry went into overdrive last week, propelled by highly flammable legislation in California. It seems that the Golden State, which already has the country’s toughest emissions laws, passed a new bill that ties auto emissions to global warming. In effect, the law will require by 2005 that automakers produce cars that give off the least amount possible of carbon dioxide, the major global warming gas.

While acknowledging the reality of climate change is par for the course in Europe, California is the first state in the U.S. to actually do something about it. Other states are expected to follow. There’s no question that cars are the culprits: Together with trucks, they account for a third of greenhouse gas emissions nationwide, and are a whopping 40 percent of the problem in California, the nation’s largest auto market.

The bill passed and was signed into law by Governor Gray Davis despite the auto industry’s multi-million-dollar lobbying campaign, which has become par for the course anytime legislation looms. Industry ads from the American Highway Users Alliance and others claimed that the auto consumer’s “freedom of choice” was at risk, and that, in effect, a uniformed agent of the government would soon be stopping by for the SUV keys. Not surprisingly, when the propaganda campaign failed, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers announced that it would turn to the courts--something the automakers have already done to stop California’s 2003 “clean car” mandates

Celebrities like director/actor Rob Reiner helped push the California bill to a narrow victory, and there was also a considerable effort by religious denominations led by activists like Reverend Sally Bingham, who heads the Episcopal Power and Light program. “The faith community played a huge role in helping pass this legislation,” Bingham says. “Our 150 member churches wrote letters to their representatives, and we even had ministers contacting legislators who were on the fence.” Religious people, she says, “are called upon to promote clean air.

Let’s face it, the future is in smaller, more fuel-efficient cars, and industry action can only hold back the floodwaters for so long. Despite the scare tactics, the Big Three can and will make hybrid versions of small SUVs and wagons that will offer all the utility a family of four could want. The Ford Escape hybrid, for instance, gets 40 miles per gallon and comes out next year

In the meantime, there are some very credible small cars on the road today. Even without being forced into it by state law, you can consider a car like the Suzuki Aerio SX, a crossover station wagon with plenty of room, below-average smog emissions and 31 miles per gallon on the highway. What’s more, the three-model Aerio line is pretty cheap, starting at $13,499 in basic, four-door sedan S form

Like the Ford Focus, the Toyota Echo and the Toyota Prius hybrid, the Aerio combines distinctive tall greenhouse, narrow track styling with excellent fuel economy and good road manners. I was perfectly happy with the standard two-liter, 141-horsepower engine, even in poky automatic trim. The lack of blazing acceleration is more than made up for by the maneuverability and nice ride. The slightly sportier SX ($15,999 as tested) comes with extras like air, power locks and alloy wheels, and will offer four-wheel drive in the fall. I’d say the SX is worth the relatively minor price premium

The Aerio is, in fact, pretty sophisticated for an entry-level car. The little engine has dual overhead cams and 16 valves. The interior is also well finished, with excellent rear seat room for a vehicle with a wheelbase of less than 100 inches. For Californians, or just people who care about reducing their impact on the planet, opting for a modest car like the Suzuki Aerio is a good place to start.

© Jim Motavalli