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New breed of vehicles catches on

Above, the Toyota Prius is most popular hybrid vehicle in the United States. Below, the GMC Yukon hybrid was introduced in 2007.

Above, the Toyota Prius is most popular hybrid vehicle in the United States. Below, the GMC Yukon hybrid was introduced in 2007.

With gas prices rising and no end in sight and activist groups and politicians advocating measures to make less of an impact on the environment, hybrid vehicles — vehicles that combine two or more power sources for their engines — are becoming more and more popular.

In 2007, hybrid sales grew steadily in the U.S. even though overall vehicle sales declined 3 percent. Registrations of hybrid vehicles rose 38 percent to a record 350,289 according to an automotive research company, the Associated Press reported this week.

Clearly, going green is becoming more mainstream.

“We’re selling every one we can get our hands on,” Motorworld Marketing Manager John Quinn said, referring to hybrid vehicles. “It’s obviously at the forefront of people’s minds right now.”

The hottest hybrid at the Wilkes-Barre dealership is the Toyota Prius, with potential buyers on a waiting list, Quinn said. But the Prius is not the only option for buyers interested in upping their gas mileage or eliminating gas fuel altogether.

“We have 15 manufacturers under one roof,” Quinn said. “Everyone is dabbling in some sort of hybrid technology.”

Last year alone, Nissan Altima, Saturn Aura and Lexus LS600h hybrid sedans were available nationally. SUVs Chevrolet Tahoe — Green Car Journal’s Green Car of the Year for 2008 — GMC Yukon and Mazda Tribute became available as well. Ford Escape and Mercury Mariner hybrids should be available at at least some dealerships in the U.S. this summer, as well as a Chevy Malibu model. And Chrysler plans to release a hybrid-electric powered Dodge Ram pickup in 2010.

Hybrid technology continues to evolve, with different types of fuel systems reaching the marketplace. The Yukon, for example, has a two-mode full-hybrid system — a six-liter V-8 engine and two electric-drive motors. Based on factors like speed and power needs, software decides whether to use just the electric power, a combination of electric and gas power or solely the V-8.

Less prominent are vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells, a particularly desirable technology as the only byproduct is water vapor. According to a Bloomberg.com article, that’s because the cost of the vehicles is prohibitive, “and there’s the issue of installing hydrogen refueling stations all over the place.” Chevrolet plans to introduce a hydrogen-powered Equinox.

Plug-in hybrids aren’t available yet but might be soon. Ford announced last month that it will test a prototype plug-in SUV, a “tricked-out version of the company’s Escape hybrid SUV” that can get up to 120 miles per gallon in the city, according to a recent San Francisco Chronicle article.

Honda is at the head of the class when it comes to number of hybrid models, with Accords, Civics and Insights available. Toyota and Lexus each have a few hybrids on the market; even Porsche is set to release a Cayenne hybrid SUV this year.

“Prius has been around a couple years,” Quinn said. “Honda and Toyota are absolutely at the top of the totem poll. Toyota is probably the highest profile manufacturer around right now, and [the Prius] gets great, great gas mileage.”

The increased gas mileage, and in turn, decreased dollars, is the lead catalyst behind higher hybrid sales. Some hybrids, like the Insight and Prius, boast up to 60 miles per gallon in city driving, according to Green-vehicles.com. But while sedans are leading the charge, trucks and SUVs — the traditional “gas guzzlers” — are appearing in more and more hybrid versions.

“The most important word in Sport Utility Vehicle is ‘utility,’” Quinn said. “And right now people are in kind of a quandary. You want the fuel-efficient gas mileage. When you see 40, 45 miles per gallon, you say ‘Wow, isn’t that great?’ Then you look at the actual vehicles and you say ‘Where am I going to put my kids? Where am I going to put my stuff?’ Vehicles follow demand. People still have certain lifestyles.”

Efficiency looks to continue to improve, and as the technology becomes more mainstream, prices will likely begin to fall. Right now, many customers are taking a wait-and-see approach to green-vehicle technology.

“The manufacturers haven’t decided if hybrid will be the only advancement made in fuel technology,” Quinn explained. “It’s kind of like the Blu-ray vs. high-definition DVD argument.”

Suffice it to say, manufacturers, dealers and buyers are all keeping their eyes and ears open right now.

“We’re all consumers as well as retailers,” said Quinn. “So we’re doing the best we can to be prepared for whatever gets thrown our way.”

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