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US consumers show increased interest in hybrid cars

About 57% of people planning to buy a vehicle within two years will consider models such as Toyota Motor Corp.'s Prius, Honda Motor Co.'s Civic Hybrid and Ford Motor Co.'s Escape Hybrid light truck, according to the survey, released yesterday by J.D. Power & Associates, a Westlake Village, California research firm. US gasoline prices stuck near $3 a gallon elevated demand for hybrids, pushing sales up 22% through July from a year earlier to a record 137,213, led by the Prius. „A lot of people say they would consider a hybrid, but there's a big difference between considering and actually intending” to buy, said Jim Hossack, an analyst with consulting firm AutoPacific Inc. of Tustin, California. Interest in hybrids may „be a fad. I think it will have had its day in five years, no more than 10. But I've been surprised before.” The report also found 49% of consumers are considering models that run on fuel that's 85% ethanol, and 12% will think about diesel-powered autos. General Motors Corp., Ford and DaimlerChrysler AG plan to double their output of „flexible-fuel” vehicles that run on ethanol or bio-diesel to 2 million a year by 2010.

At the same time, buyers overestimate potential fuel savings, J.D. Power analyst Mike Marshall said. „One of the biggest challenges for alternative powertrains is that consumers often have unrealistic expectations for the fuel-saving abilities of these vehicles,” he said. Consumers surveyed by Power expect their average fuel economy to improve by 28 miles per gallon with a hybrid vehicle, and by 21 mpg with a diesel model. The research firm estimates a hybrid only boosts fuel economy an average of 9 mpg and a diesel offers an average 12 mpg improvement. „We've certainly tried to communicate with people that the mileage is estimated, and that your real-world experience will vary,” said Cindy Knight, a spokeswoman for Toyota's US sales unit in Torrance, California.

As part of its powertrain study, J.D. Power compiled the Automotive Environmental Index. It ranks the 30 most environmentally friendly models in terms of fuel-economy, tailpipe pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Three Volkswagen AG cars, the VW Golf, Jetta and New Beetle, were among the top 30, and its full US model line led the index overall. Gasoline-electric hybrid vehicles save fuel and reduce emissions by combining a gasoline engine, a battery pack and brakes that capture energy from stopping. The components add at least $3,000 to the retail price of such vehicles. US regular gasoline averaged $2.823 a gallon Aug. 30, 22 cents higher than a year earlier, according to AAA's Web site. J.D. Power surveyed 4,000 consumers for the report. (Bloomberg)