Gas costs steer study into hybrids

Officials balking at car's price tag

Elizabeth Smyth, a telecommunications help desk technician, drives one of the city's hybrid cars Thursday in downtown Lawrence. Smyth often drives the car to and from various city offices. The city is looking to add more hybrids to its fleet to decrease fuel expenses.

It’s still not easy — let alone cheap — to be green.

A new city report has found that now isn’t financially the right time to switch the majority of the city’s vehicles to more environmentally friendly gas/electric hybrids. But with rising gasoline prices, the time is inching nearer.

“I think in 15 years we’ll be looking back at an all-gasoline fleet as an antique,” said City Commissioner David Schauner, who requested the city report on the feasibility of hybrid vehicles.

What the report found is that vehicle manufacturers are still commanding a premium price for many hybrid vehicles and the city wouldn’t save enough in fuel costs over the life of the vehicle to justify the additional purchase price.

For example, the city recently took a bid for a new extended-cab pickup truck. Chevrolet makes a hybrid model and the city received a bid for $27,500. The city eventually bought a traditional gasoline-powered truck for $16,708. Gasoline mileage for the hybrid truck is 20-percent better than the traditional truck. But even with gasoline prices at well over $2 per gallon, officials estimated it would take nearly 27 years for the city to save enough in fuel costs to justify the increased purchase price.

A monitor shows the energy status of one of the city's Toyota Priuses. Hybrids use an electronic motor until the cars get up to about 25 miles per hour, then they switch to the gasoline engine.

But Mayor Boog Highberger said in a community that places a high value on being environmentally friendly, the focus shouldn’t be on just money.

“We need to look beyond a straight cost-benefit ratio,” Highberger said. “I think we should be a leader. But it does look like there are some areas where it is not cost-effective enough for us to buy into it yet.”

The report, though, does point out at least one opportunity for the city to add hybrids to their fleet. The city currently has three Toyota Prius hybrid cars purchased in 2001 to test the concept. Officials at the city garage have found the hybrids are getting 23 miles per gallon better mileage than the 14 traditional Ford Tauruses the city uses. The price difference between the two cars has narrowed to about $9,400. With gas at its current prices, the city estimates the gasoline savings would pay for the additional purchase price during a 10-year period.

Brendan Dow, sales manager at Lawrence’s Crown Toyota, said there would be plenty of other opportunities for the city in the near future. Dow said Toyota, like most major auto companies, was limited in its selection of hybrid vehicles. Currently the company offers two different models — the Prius and the Highlander sport utility vehicle, which will be available in June — but by 2010 the automaker will have a hybrid version for all 18 models of vehicles that it produces.

Dow said sales for the two current Toyota models had been brisk as gasoline prices soared. He said he usually had a waiting list of at least a dozen people looking to order a Prius. Not surprisingly, he thinks the city ought to add its name to the list.

“It would be a great way for the city to show it cares about the environment and wants to be progressive,” Dow said. “In a university town like this, that’s important.”

Debbie Van Saun, assistant city manager, said she thought the city ultimately would become more aggressive in buying hybrids.

“I think what commissioners are telling us is to keep a close eye on it and seize the opportunities for replacing vehicles when they come up,” Van Saun said.

Schauner said he also wanted city staff members to research possible federal grants that could be used to help defray some of the additional purchase price associated with hybrids.

Base vehicles
Fuel Economy Manufacturer’s
Automobile (City/Hwy) Suggested Retail Price
Chevy Silverado 1500 16/22 $19,040 (2WD 5-speed)
Ford Escape XLS 24/29 $19,995 (5-speed manual)
Honda Accord DX 26/34 $16,925 (5-speed manual)
Honda Civic DX 32/38 $13,260 (5-speed manual)
Hybrid versions
Fuel Economy Manufacturer’s
Automobile (City/Hwy) Suggested Retail Price
Chevy Silverado 18/21 $30,345 (2WD)
Ford Escape HEV 36/31 $27,400 (2WD)
Honda Accord 29/37 $30,140
Honda Civic 46/51 $19,900 (5-speed manual)
Honda Insight 61/66 $19,300 (5-speed manual)
Toyota Prius 60/51 $20,975

* — Only available in hybrid models