Pump prices ease sticker shock for hybrids

Posted May 26, 2008 5:04 p.m. EDT
Updated May 27, 2008 5:32 a.m. EDT

— Paying a premium for a hybrid vehicle is becoming easier to swallow for consumers as gas prices continue to rise, car dealers say.

The national average for a gallon of regular gas was $3.93 Monday, according to AAA. The price is up more than 71 cents from Memorial Day weekend last year.

The average price in North Carolina is about $3.90 a gallon, while the average in the Triangle is $3.91 a gallon, according to AAA.

"You're starting to see a larger portion of people (who have been) maybe on the fence in terms of moving toward a hybrid actually jumping and saying, 'Hey, let's go ahead and pursue this vehicle,'" said Tim Littrell, a salesman at Leith Honda.

Leith Honda has a waiting list for Civic hybrids, Littrell said.

"(There are) none on the lot," he said.

About 330,000 hybrid vehicles were sold in the U.S. last year, which is 10 times the number sold five years ago. The Toyota Prius is the No. 1 seller, followed by the Toyota Camry, the Honda Civic, the Toyota Highlander and the Lexus 400-H.

A hybrid costs about $3,000 to $6,000 more than a comparable gas-powered vehicle. With gas prices closing in on $4 a gallon, dealers said hybrid buyers can recoup the difference in the sticker price in a few years because of better fuel economy.

The hybrid Chevrolet Tahoe, for example, averages about 21 city miles per gallon, compared with 14 city miles per gallon for a regular Tahoe.

General Motors, which makes the Tahoe, estimates the average person drives between 12,000 and 15,000 miles a year and could save about $1,400 on fuel costs by driving a hybrid.

"It's brand new to us – the first hybrids we've had," said Joel Smith, a salesman at Hendrick Chevrolet. "Right now, we're talking two years to pay off that hybrid, but with prices going the way they are, it could only be a minimum of one year to make that hybrid difference."

The federal government also offers tax credits to consumers on many of the hybrid vehicle models.

"Now is the time to do it," Littrell said of buying a hybrid. "Gas prices don't seem like they're getting any lower. We've seen them creeping up, and we're starting to see those people saying this is the motivating factor."