The Toyota Prius, a gas-electric hybrid, is so popular there's a six-to-eight-month waiting list to get one at Koons Tysons Toyota. Across the street at Rosenthal Honda, the rival Honda Civic Hybrid is in ready supply -- 11 cars sat in the sun on a recent morning.
The Prius and Civic have similar new technologies, so it's not just fuel efficiency that's causing drivers to flock to Toyota's hybrid. "The Prius is a fashion statement," said Art Spinella, a consultant with CNW Marketing Research who surveys car-buying trends. "It looks different. Other people know the driver is driving a hybrid vehicle. It clearly makes a bigger statement about the person than does the Civic, which basically looks like a Civic."
The gas mileage for the Toyota Prius gets 60 miles per gallon in city driving, that is 12 miles per gallon more than the Honda Civic Hybrid gets in city driving.
(Len Spoden - Len Spoden -- For The Washington Post)
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The Prius has set itself apart with a geek-chic look -- a thick, curved body, a high back end and glittering computer displays on the dashboard. It's the car of choice for image-conscious Hollywood celebrities -- Larry David, Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz are among the faithful -- and the favorite ride of the Sierra Club with its EPA-rated 60 miles per gallon in city driving. Google Inc. founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page have burnished their hip anti-tycoon images by both driving Priuses.
The auto industry is scrambling to milk the trend by making more hybrids, with Ford Motor Co. debuting the first U.S.-produced version and Honda Motor Co. and Toyota Motor Corp. expanding their offerings. But the Prius's trouncing of the Civic calls into question the depth of the hybrid phenomenon, suggesting that what seems like a new consumer appetite for clean technology could be more a hunger for one cool car.
"The basic reason I liked the Prius above the Honda is I just thought it was a much cooler-looking car," said Jeff Kash, 47, a West Hills, Calif., middle-school teacher who created a Web site to celebrate his 2004 Prius. "The Honda Civic Hybrid is a nice car, but it's boring."
Hybrid buyers in focus groups gravitate to the Prius "because of its unique design and will candidly admit they expect to receive some acclaim from friends, relatives, co-workers for their concern about the environment and/or fuel efficiency," Spinella said.
That's classic car-buying behavior, said Michael Marsden, dean of academic affairs at St. Norbert College in Wisconsin and an expert on popular culture. "Automobile culture has always been about status. The whole industry is based on symbols," he said. "With the Prius, you're bringing attention to yourself . . . saying, 'I bought something upscale, something people will talk about.' It is a conversation piece, an attention-getter."
And it's getting a lot of attention from consumers. Last month, a record 5,230 Priuses sold in the United States, and the car is on track to sell some 45,000 this year. Toyota recently announced plans to increase production to help alleviate a backlog. The company believes it could sell twice as many if only enough were available, Toyota Motor Sales USA Inc. spokesman Irv Miller said.
Those sales are helped by laws that encourage hybrid use. Virginia has made itself the second-largest hybrid market in the country, after California, by offering the cars a free pass onto high-occupancy-vehicle (HOV) lanes. The federal government lets hybrid owners take a one-time tax credit.
But those factors influence Honda sales, as well, and they're lagging far behind the Prius even though the Civic Hybrid has won high marks for performance. Car and Driver magazine recently rated it above the Prius in a driving test, though its gas mileage is lower than Prius' at an EPA-tested 48 miles per gallon in the city.