Feature on hybrids and how mechanics are adjusting to the rise in demand. ... With 2 sidebars.
Chuck Kurt loved his hybrid car so much, he got one for his wife.
But you might be lucky just to find one.
With gas prices north of $3 a gallon and more consumers going green, the part-electric vehicles are rolling off lots faster than dealers can order them.
The most popular is the Toyota Prius, which sold a record 24,009 cars in the United States last month. And if you can find one on a lot, chances are the car already has a deposit on it, said Devin Bloomingdale, sales manager for Anderson Toyota in Rockford.
Demand Exceeds Supply
"Right now, there's a waiting list for all hybrids, and it's going to be that way for a while," Bloomingdale said.
It's the same story at Napleton's Auto Werks in Loves Park, where the Honda Civic hybrid is popular. There was a spike in sales when gas topped $3 in late 2005, Honda sales manager Jorge Rangel said, but that was nothing compared with last month's spike when gas hit $3.50.
"A lot of them are coming in sold before they come in here," he said. "Even the pre-owned hybrids, as soon as I get them, they're sold."
Dealers say most customers are interested in saving money on gas, but they note that it takes a few years to recoup the investment in the vehicles, which cost thousands more than comparably equipped gas-only vehicles. Drivers who have longer commutes will see savings a lot quicker.
But more and more customers are also looking for an alternative to fossil fuels, regardless of the money savings.
Small Share of Business
"I think it's the wave of the future," said Kurt, who owns Kurt's Auto & Truck Center in Rockford. "Whatever we come up with in the future as we run out of renewable resources, I think it's going to be a package of electrical and other things."
Mechanics like Kurt are also seeing more hybrids, but it's still a tiny piece of their business. Hybrids make up only about 1 percent of the domestic auto market.
Kurt compares them to import cars -- decades ago, a lot of mechanics wouldn't touch them, but now everyone works on them.
Dealer shops still do the lion's share of the work, especially anything dealing directly with the electric components. That's partly because the vehicles are still new and under warranty, and partly because dealer technicians have access to company-provided classes that give an inside look at their vehicles.
But with the expectation that hybrids will get a bigger share of the markets, even independent mechanics are buying special gloves and equipment and taking classes.
"Most of the work we have done on them is nothing hybrid-related," said Greg Gerber, shop manager at Harlem Road Automotive in Loves Park. "We're mainly doing things like plugging tires, doing brakes. The schooling that we've gone to, they're telling us that the manufacturers want those cars to go back to the dealership so they can see how they're doing."
The biggest difference in handling hybrids is minding the electrical current, which is typically a few hundred volts. Hybrids tend to have the electrical cables shielded in bright-orange insulation, and mechanics are taught how to power the vehicle down before working on them.
Bob Hall, owner of Advanced Automotive Services in Machesney Park, said his staff will do more training as the vehicles become more popular. He's even considered buying one for himself, but he's concerned about long-term costs of repairing the vehicles and their complex components.
"Once you get into repairing motors for both hybrid and gasoline, you've got double the powertrain and the batteries are real expensive," he said. "Once they get old, people will junk them instead of paying for repairs."
Honda and Toyota say the batteries should last the life of the car, and they say the replacement costs of batteries keep dropping. They also have battery-recycling programs to allay environmental concerns, and Toyota specifically pays dealers a "bounty" for each battery they send to recycling.
Kurt thinks many of the concerns will be proved false -- he too thought the batteries would last only a few years until he did some research. Now he's a convert.
Other companies appear to be, too, with Lexus and GM coming out with hybrid vehicles. Kurt expects to see them in his shop someday, too.
"I've always been trying to be forward-looking," he said.
Contact Thomas V. Bona at firstname.lastname@example.org.
NEXT STEP: BETTER BATTERY
The next innovation in hybrids is expected to come from a new type of battery, called the lithium-ion battery, which will be smaller and lighter than the nickel-metal hydride batteries Toyota now uses for its hybrids.
A major breakthrough is needed to switch to lithium-ion batteries, now widely used in laptops, to make them power cars.
Earlier this month, General Motors Corp. announced another step to get its Chevrolet Volt long-range electric series-hybrid vehicle into the hands of drivers.
GM awarded two contracts for advanced development of lithium-ion batteries for the Volt to Michigan-based Compact Power Inc., a subsidiary of Korean battery manufacturer LG Chem. and Continental Automotive Systems, a division of Continental AG.
-- Register Star wire reports
May was the biggest month ever in U.S. sales of hybrid vehicles. The top-selling models were:
Toyota Prius, 24,009
Toyota Camry, 6,853
Honda Civic, 4,520
Toyota Highlander, 3,312
Mercury Mariner and Ford Escape, 3,214
Lexus Rx 400h, 1,746
(Note: General Motors doesn't break down the sales of hybrid versions of its vehicles)
-- Register Star wire reports