Honda sold only 1,963 Civic Hybrids in the United States last month, down from a peak of 3,183 in May. It expects to sell up to 24,000 here this year, spokesman Chuck Schifsky said, adding that production seems to be keeping pace with demand.
Honda also makes the Insight hybrid, a two-seater that debuted in 1999 as the first gas-electric hybrid for sale in the United States. That car's sales are evaporating, though, as consumers move away from two-door cars -- only 34 sold in the United States in July, down from 61 the month before.
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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But raw sales numbers don't tell the full tale of how much more heat surrounds the Prius than its rival. The Prius has been the fastest-selling car in the country for 10 straight months, meaning it spends the least time on the car lot of any vehicle before being sold, according to the Power Information Network. The Honda Civic Hybrid isn't in the top 10.
While dealers are offering discounts on the Civic Hybrid -- Brown's Arlington Honda advertises about $1,500 off retail of about $21,000, for instance -- the Prius sells for full price of roughly $22,000, no haggling. What's more, even a used Prius can command huge premiums at auctions such as the online eBay because new ones are so hard to come by.
Howard Weaver, inventory manager for Koons Tysons Toyota, said one of his used-car managers recently lost out on a used 2004 Prius on eBay to someone bidding over $34,000. A recent survey of the site showed several new Priuses in mid-auction with bids over $27,000.
Several Honda Civic Hybrids, on the other hand, were languishing far below asking price. A used 2003 with fewer than 5,000 miles had reached only $2,025 after 12 bids, for instance. A new 2004 Civic Hybrid with a starting bid of $20,356 had no takers after four days.
The lack of bids isn't necessarily a bad thing, said Michael Healy, who put that new hybrid up for auction as Internet sales manager for Jay Honda of Bedford, Ohio. "It generates a lot of interest and then people call you or e-mail you with questions," he said.
This is the first time he has tried auctioning a hybrid online, and he said he did so because the cars have sold well at the dealership. He credited the rival Prius with boosting overall interest in hybrids.
Honda says the Civic Hybrid was never intended to set hearts afire. "There are people certainly who want to stand out and want something different, and they have, I think, tended toward the Prius," Honda spokesman Schifsky said. "That is not exactly what the Civic is -- it just blends in. . . . People buy it because it's not different, because it is a Civic."
Even the type of hybrid drive used in the Honda was designed to seem unobtrusive. The car starts on gasoline power and uses the electric motor for an invisible boost during acceleration only. The Prius, on the other hand, starts out electric -- silent and smooth -- and switches on the gas engine automatically at speeds above 20 miles per hour.
That difference is another reason some people prefer the Prius, and it still comes back to image: "With the all-electric mode, there's just the coolness factor. You can drive off from where you're parked and everybody says, 'Whoooa, no noise!'," said Charlie Garlow, 55, a lawyer at the Environmental Protection Agency who drives a 2003 Prius and advocates electric power for vehicles. "The Toyota is a step in the right direction compared to the Honda Civic, which never lets you put a foot on the pedal unless you've got some gasoline burning."
Ford put a Prius-style drive system in its new hybrid, the Escape SUV, but otherwise followed Honda's low-key example. The Escape hybrid looks almost identical to its conventionally powered predecessor. That conservative approach could limit the Escape hybrid's appeal, because people who pay a few thousand dollars extra for the new technology want to show it off, said Sean McAlinden, chief economist at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich.
"Maybe Ford should make them all forest green and put this big 'hybrid' sign on them," he said.
For its part, Honda isn't worried about staying atop the trend. "We're going at it in a methodical way, which is very common of Honda," Schifsky said. "I think interest is going to continue. I'm not sure at what rate it is going to continue."
If fuel prices remain relatively low -- and by inflation-adjusted historical standards, even this year's spike to $2 a gallon was low -- interest in hybrids is unlikely to go beyond current levels, he said. But if prices zoom up toward $3 a gallon, he added, "boy, that hits people."
Toyota remains bullish that the Prius is more than the automotive equivalent of disco or pet rocks. The company has roughly 7,500 paid orders in hand for the Lexus RX 400h SUV hybrid, which debuts later this year, spokeswoman Martha Voss said. Some 50,000 people have expressed interest in the Toyota Highlander hybrid SUV, which debuts next year, she added.
"We do not believe that Prius is a flash in the pan -- hot today, gone tomorrow," she said in an e-mail. "Nor do we believe it will be the only successful hybrid. Our money and the money of several other manufacturers are betting on it."