First Coast Embracing Hybrid Cars to Save Gas

Jacksonville users up 38% in 1 year, auto tracker says By LARRY HANNAN, The Florida Times Union 

Bill Learn has a simple explanation why he bought a four-seat 2008 metallic gray Toyota Camry Hybrid two weeks ago.

“It was the price of gas,” said Learn, who works for the American Red Cross in Jacksonville as a solutions manager. “I don’t see the cost of gas coming down anytime soon.”

He is not alone. Hybrid cars, which are quiet and fuel-efficient because of their mix of electrical power and internal combustion engines, are becoming the “must have” cars for people fed up with gas over $3.50 a gallon.

Northeast Florida drivers and businesses are increasingly looking to purchase hybrid cars, which get 40 to 50 miles per gallon. From 2006 to 2007, the number of people with hybrid cars in Jacksonville increased by 38 percent, from 939 to 1,300, according to R.L. Polk & Co., an auto information and marketing company.

During the same period, the number of hybrid cars in Florida increased by 49.5 percent, from 12,900 to 19,283.

In 2007 about 353,000 hybrids were sold in America, which is about 2.2 percent of all cars sold that year, said John Tews, spokesman for J.D. Power and Associates, a marketing research firm.

That number is expected to increase to about 422,000 in 2008, which would be about 2.6 percent of all the cars sold in America, Tews said.

Car dealerships in the region said the demand for hybrids is so great they can’t keep them in stock.

Esmond Donawa, new car director at Ernie Palmer Toyota on Cassat Avenue, said people have begun pre-ordering the hybrids before they even arrive.

People tell him the make and color hybrid they want, and the next time that model comes in it goes to the person who pre-ordered it, he said.

The demand for hybrids is higher than it’s ever been. They sell seven to 10 hybrids a month and have told Toyota to try to send them more because they’re selling so quickly, Donawa said.

Learn paid about $30,000 for his hybrid. While that is more than he wanted to pay for a car, he believes that in the long run he’ll save money by not having to buy gas as often.

In the two weeks since he bought the car, Learn has driven 200 miles and hasn’t had to fill his gas tank. He has half a tank of gas left.Learn often has to travel through the state as part of his job, which is one of the reasons he decided to get a hybrid car.He chose to get a Camry hybrid because he has a bad back and thought a Toyota Prius, the most popular hybrid car, would be too small.Ask Harold Boyett, the owner of Blue Streak Couriers on Belfort Road, if there’s a negative to owning hybrid vehicles and he jokes that his employees have come close to running out of gas.The gas mileage lasts so long you don’t always remember to fill up the car, Boyett said.

Boyett bought two Toyota Priuses this year because of their fuel efficiency and because it was something his company could do to help the environment.

They are making their car payments strictly on the money they save from not having to buy as much gas, Boyett said.

The cars also set them apart from their competitors because the Blue Streak hybrid cars have been painted to let people know that they’re fuel-efficient.

Most of the time the hybrid cars are used to make deliveries in the downtown Jacksonville area, since having fuel-efficient cars is helpful in an area where you have to stop and start a lot, said Barrett Cook, an account manager at Blue Streak.

Larry Bennett, one of the Blue Streak drivers, said when he first started driving the hybrid he worried that it would have no power. But he’s found that it actually maneuvers very well in traffic.

The Toyota Prius has been made since the late ’90s, and has been available in America since the 2001 model. But for years, the car was seen as a niche buy that was primarily bought by environmentalists.

That stereotype was never completely true, and now it’s laughably wrong, said Joe Tetherow, spokesman for Toyota.

Toyota expects to sell its 1 millionth Prius this month.

larry.hannan@jacksonville.com, (904) 359-4470

DON BURK/The Florida Times Union
Driver Larry Bennett uses
a hybrid car for Blue Streak
Couriers in Jacksonville.
Business owner Harold Boyett
bought two Toyota Priuses
this year for their fuel
efficiency and eco-friendliness.