Publication:Johnson City Press; Date:Jan 21, 2007; Section:Tempo; Page Number:1E

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    Few car owners are more passionate about their ride than owners of hybrid cars. Just ask them. If you’re in a parking lot or at the gas pump and notice someone with a hybrid, and you make a vague inquiry, you’re likely to get an enthusiastic response. These owners tend to become de facto salespeople for their cars. They are ambassadors-at-large for the cause. “Come, join us,” they seem to be saying. “Come see the light.” “My husband, Gary, is a good salesman for the car,” Toyota Prius owner Nancy Barriger said. “He’ll stop and tell anyone about it.” “It does make a big statement,” said Sandra Garrett. She and her husband, John Dewey, live in Stoney Creek and own a Prius. “It’s almost a badge of honor, and you get this sense of community with other hybrid owners.” Why are owners of hybrids — high-tech cars powered by both gasoline and electricity — so passionate about their vehicles? Perhaps because the cars represent something more than just driving around in style, more than looking good or being comfortable or going fast. “It’s bigger than just a car,” Unicoi’s Rebecca Nunley said. Nunley and her husband, Richard Brosmore, own two Priuses. “It’s personal for me — really, it’s spiritual for me. It’s important to the way I live my life, considering the issues of overconsumption and conservation.”

    Hybrid cars can represent a lifestyle and its priorities. They get extremely good gas mileage (as much as 60 mpg in some models) and do so with greatly reduced emissions (Prius reduces emissions by 90 percent), thus they are environmentally friendly. Buying a hybrid is one of the biggest “green” commitments someone can make.

    By now, most people have seen hybrids on the road. The earliest versions were decidedly different from conventional automobiles, sometimes looking space-agey and experimental. They are becoming more commonplace, as well as more stylish, more practical, better-performing and not so klunky, although hybrids still represent only a tiny fraction of cars on the road.

    The king of hybrids is the Prius, by far the most popular such car in the United States. The rest of the automaking industry lags behind Toyota in both technology and production of hybrids.

    Toyota, in fact,

    plans to eventually offer 75 percent of its models in a hybrid version. Already, there are hybrid Highlanders (an SUV), Camrys and other models that have almost no noticeable differences in appearance, on the outside, from their conventional gasoline-engine models. Honda makes the Civic and Accord. Lexus, Saturn and Ford, among others, also make hybrid models.

    Who buys these cars?

    “Traditionally what we’ve found is most hybrid buyers are very well-educated before they get here,” said Dan Leighton, sales manager for Phil Bachman Toyota in Johnson City. “They’ve done a lot of research, and sometimes they know as much as we do about the car.

    “The buyers used to be people who were engineer types, were really fascinated with the technology, or people who were really environmentally conscious. Now it runs the gamut. We get everybody.”

    While there are no statistics on it, the general assumption is that hybrid buyers are more likely to be Democrats than Republicans, liberals than conservatives, white-collar professionals rather than blue-collar. Garrett said that as a Prius owner she notices other such cars on the road right away, and over the years “I’ve only seen one with a Bush sticker.”

    But hybrid-car owners also say it shouldn’t be a political choice. Being economical and concerned about the environment are apolitical issues.

    “It is putting our money where our values lie,” said Barriger. “It’s a little more expensive for its size than other cars, but not that much more. And I think as people become more aware of the environmental problems the Earth is facing, as it keeps coming out in the mainstream media, they’re realizing we’ve got to make changes.”

    Owners of hybrids generally incorporate “green” habits into their daily routine, such as recycling, composting, buying energy-efficient appliances or contributing to environmental groups and projects. Prius owners mentioned other ways they conserve by owning such a vehicle: The car is supposed to last longer than conventional cars, up to 600,000 miles, and uses less gas (45 to 55 mpg) and oil (needs changing about every 7,000 miles rather than every 3,000), they say.

    The Barrigers, as well as Nunley and Brosmore,

Presbyterian Church in Elizabethton. Up to a dozen Priuses can be found in the church parking lot on a Sunday morning, prompting people to jokingly call it “the First Priusbyterian Church,” pastor John Shuck said.

    Two of the biggest concerns about hybrids are whether they’ve got enough acceleration for sudden traffic situations, and whether they’re roomy enough to be comfortable.

    “I’ve talked to people about these cars,” Garrett said, “and the biggest misconception is they’re not very powerful. But if they believe that, then I just give them the keys and say ‘Try it.’ ”

    “It’s peppy,” Brosmore said. “It surprised me. And it’s there when you need it.”

    As for comfort, Dewey, at about 6-foot-3, said he has no problems, even on long trips.

    Why don’t more people buy hybrids? For one thing, they cost more than conventional vehicles.

    A new Prius will cost $22,000 or more. There are temporary tax breaks in effect that can save about $3,000, but even with the savings from good gas mileage, it still may take a while to break even with costs, compared to a conventional car. (One recent study concluded that, over several years, hybrid owners will actually spend $3,000 less in overall operating costs.)

    Because hybrids are relatively new and produced in smaller quantities than conventional cars, there are fewer of them available — and fewer used ones — so someone on a tight budget will have a hard time finding a $5,000 hybird. And because of the technology involved, there are fewer mechanics qualified to work on them.

    But the benefits far outweigh the setbacks, these owners believe, especially regarding the future of the environment.

    “It’s easy for people to say ‘There’s nothing I can do; it’s too big,’ ” Nunley said. “I don’t think global warming’s gonna end because I bought a Prius. But we can all do our part.”

    “One thing I’m hoping,” Barriger said, “is that American car manufacturers will realize people are ready for this kind of technology.”

Rebecca Nunley and Richard Brosmore own two Priuses.

Sandra Garrett and John with their Prius