Can Hybrid Cars Catch On?

One car. Two engines. Sixty-eight miles per gallon.

That's what you'll get — in theory, at least — if you own an Insight, Honda's environmentally friendly two-seater sports car with a hybrid gas-and-electric engine. And you could get mileage in that neighborhood with the Toyota Prius, a four-door sedan that runs the same way.

The two cars represent the first vehicles of their kind to be sold in the United States, and could be an increasingly frequent sight on America's roads and highways.

See a Slidehow of Electric Hybrid Vehicles

And while all-electric cars have flopped before in the U.S. market before, these vehicles are different, using a combination of electricity and internal combustion.

Unlike previous electric-powered experiments, they don't have to be re-charged — the car's generator does that when the batteries run low — a handy feature for California drivers during one of the state's increasingly common rolling blackouts.

But Will They Catch On?

For motorists concerned about the environment or high gas prices, the attraction of the Prius or Insight is their excellent gas mileage. Toyota claims the Prius gets 52 miles per gallon in cities and 45 on the highway — in part because of the way it conserves energy when at a halt. Consumer Reports magazine says it got 41 mpg when testing the car.

The smaller Insight is advertised at 61 to 68 miles per gallon, although Car and Driver reports that it got 47.

Honda says it has sold nearly 5,000 Insights in a little more than a year, with more than 400 moving in March, the highest total yet. But that's still the second-lowest figure among Honda's 14 models available in the United States.

By comparison, the company's best-selling car, the Accord, moved almost 38,000 units in March.

Toyota spokesman Wade Hoyt says the carmaker has more orders for the Prius than it can fill. The company is importing 1,000 a month from Japan and is elling them all, with sales particulary high in Southern California and the Pacific Northwest.

Detroit Makes Plans

Still, the Insight and Prius represent just the first attempts at mass-production hybrid cars. Others are planned, including a hybrid Honda Civic, the company's No. 2-selling car.

"I don't think they will be super-successful in the long run," says Frank Markus, the technical director for Car and Driver magazine. "This thing [the Insight] is the technology-teaser to get people interested, then they'll stick this engine in the Civic."

Perhaps more importantly for the future of hybrid cars, some of Detroit's automakers are planning to roll out hybrid versions of their most popular models already in production.

Ford and DaimlerChrysler are planning hybrid versions of some of their SUVs, to be rolled out from 2003 through 2005, while Chevrolet is planning to produce hybrid versions of two full-size pickups, the Silverado and Sierra, in 2004. And Ford announced last week it will open a new $650 million factory in Turkey, where up to 150,000 hybrid vehicles will be manufactured per year.

Still, some say that hybrid cars are not likely to be a long-term solution for those seeking energy efficiency. In the long run, fuel-cell cars, which generate electricity from hydrogen cells, may be the auto industry's big step beyond internal combustion.

"We definitely see the Prius as a bridge to whatever the car of the future may be," says Hoyt. "It may be a fuel-cell car, or a combination of fuel-cell and hybrid."

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