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Cool Cars & Tech

Hybrids no longer just for eco-chic

Cost of fuel just one reason why everyday drivers embrace plug-in

Published October 12, 2012

In the decade since its debut, the hybrid vehicle has changed, as have the people who drive the cars that tout fuel efficiency and practicality as their main selling feature.

Interest in hybrids began when the Prius was released 12 years ago in North America with volunteer celebrity endorsements. This was a year after the release of Honda’s Insight hybrid. Eco- conscious consumers and early technology adopters who could afford it embraced the cars.

Since they hit the mass market, hybrids have become a beacon of practicality and economic sensibility and middle-aged drivers have taken notice. What was once the new age car of the future is becoming the chariot of soccer moms and baby boomers.

“Those first cars I think touched the mood of the time, which was also looking at the future and was looking very much at the questions of environmental degradation, global warming and a whole host of issues around human environmental footprint and how to minimize that,” said Stephen Beatty, managing director for Toyota Canada.

“It represented values that were bigger than simply the fuel economy — it was a statement about their values as much as it was about the vehicle.”

Andrew Grant, a former cab driver in B.C. with Yellow Cab, had been following the development of Toyota’s Prius technology since 1996, when the cars first launched in Japan. “I’m a car nut. So I knew about the technology, but I was waiting for it to come to North America to actually see how would it (translate) from a Japanese car to a North American car.”

He paid about $35,000 when he bought his Prius. Friends asked why he didn’t just buy a BMW for the same price. “I wanted to be on the cutting edge of technology and I wanted to put my money where my mouth is,” he said. He thought hybrids would change the mentality of the car industry.

The car was cost-effective and environmentally friendly. It paid for itself in gas and repair savings over time. Now Yellow Cab in Vancouver has the largest fleet of hybrid vehicles in North America with over 200 cars.

“It’s now a cool status thing,” Grant said. “I have a number of friends who never would have bought a Prius who are buying because it’s cool.”

Now trend chasers are being joined by a more practical set who have watched gas prices rise steadily over the past decade and are looking for a more fuel-efficient alternative.

Toronto’s Peggi-Jean Cooper, 61, used to drive a Ford Explorer. She traded cars with her son, who lives in Parry Sound, Ont. He drove a Prius and was having trouble having the car serviced there.

“I went kicking and screaming into the night because I didn’t want it, I loved my Explorer,” said Cooper. “But, now that I have it, I don’t want a bigger car.”

What she loves is the gas savings. Her son pays around $600 a month for gas, while she pays closer to $200.

She drives it for what she thinks are fairly typical reasons. She has over 200,000 kilometres on her car and it hasn’t given her a problem.

Her neighbours, a middle-aged couple, recently bought a hybrid Camry. “Why not buy a hybrid when you can?” said Cooper, adding it’s less expensive to maintain and a practical choice for more mature drivers.

She says her next car will definitely be a hybrid (though not necessarily a Prius), especially because of the perks that come along with them — such as prime parking at Ikea stores. The one drawback to hybrids, said Cooper, is the upfront cost.

But those looking for fuel efficiency, practicality, high technology and a boon for the environment have got options beyond the Prius.

All the major car companies have begun to offer cars with hybrid technology. Ford is coming out with its first ever hybrid-only vehicle line in North America later this year. The C-Max Hybrid line of vehicles will all have lithium ion batteries. They ought to start at $27,199 in Canada.

Customers have started to demand more fuel-efficient vehicles, said Amy Machesney, who is the marketing manager for C-Max Hybrid and C-Max Energi plug-in. “Buyers are starting to see them more as mainstream vehicles,” she said.

According to the automaker’s data, once a driver purchases a hybrid they’re much more likely to repurchase one. Machesney adds the average income gap between hybrid and gas car buyers has been cut nearly in half over the last six years from about $30,000 to $15,000.

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