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Hybrids Find Growing Acceptance on Main Street USA

Mirror, mirror on the web, what city is the greenest of them all?

When it comes to car shopping, it’s San Francisco. That’s according to cars.com, a leading destination for online car shoppers, which prepares a green index, based on a ranking of hybrid vehicle searches by market.

By region, window shoppers on the West Coast won hands down. The top six cities were from the West Coast. Besides San Fran, Portland, Seattle, Sacramento, San Diego and Los Angeles showed the greatest interest in new car searches. The big laggards were in southern cities such as Houston, Oklahoma, Memphis, Birmingham and Miami.

In between were cities in the Midwest and on the East Coast. Denver and Minneapolis/St. Paul, cities “traditionally concerned with environmental issues,” also score big, as did Washington D.C. and Boston, which cars.com attributed to being “plagued by traffic and congestion.” A recent Cars.com survey showed that 59% of car shoppers have purchased or would consider purchasing a hybrid as their next car.

Hybrids By The Numbers

2005 Toyota Prius.
Toyota
2005 Toyota Prius.

Some 1,095,576 hybrids have been sold in the US market in 1999, since their introduction here in 1999. In the first quarter of 2008 alone, 83,101 vehicles were sold, up seven percent from the year-ago period. The numbers seems bound to swell.

"Gas prices definitely play a role in hybrid interest, because West Coast cities traditionally have higher gas prices on average than the rest of the country," says Cars.com editor-in-chief Patrick Olsen.

California has the highest gasoline prices – higher than Alaska or Hawaii - and at $3.80 per gallon (of regular) that is close to $0.70 higher than in New Jersey (which has the nation's lowest prices), according to AAA’s daily state-by-state retail fuel gauge survey.

“I think a lot of this is that California tends to be a trend setter, for many things, and it also has a regulatory environment there, through the California Air Resources Board, that has always been very aggressive in terms of setting goals for alternative fuel vehicle sales and that represents the thinking of the population, so it is a more conducive environment,” says Kim Custer, director of communications, at the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers, Inc. (AIAM), a trade association representing 14 international auto makers whose U.S. market share is 40 percent and growing.

This includes Japan’s Toyota, the clear leader in hybrids, thanks to its Prius model. Its sales somewhat mirror the Car.com data. The Los Angeles region accounts for 14 percent of all sales. The Washington, D.C. area is second. The company sold 64,028 cars in the first quarter of 2008.

Toyota commands a market share of 70-75 percent, which has remained fairly constant, despite the widening array of hybrid models offered by other manufacturers, including Honda , Ford, Nissan, , and GM which is introducing hybrid pick-ups.

Recent Toyota sales data shows growing acceptance of hybrids in the Midwest, particularly with the introduction of a Camry model. The Cincinnati and Chicago regions saw more than a 30 percent increase in Camry hybrid sales during the first quarter of 2008 compared with the same period last year. March sales doubled February's tally.

“Basically what you are seeing here is hybrid technology is becoming very mainstream,” says John Hanson, a Toyota representative.

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