Shhhh, there's a stealth car

September 26, 2000|By Edward Flattau

WASHINGTON -- My 14-year-old car is on its last legs. I desperately need a replacement and, as an environmentalist, I want the cleanest and (especially with escalating gasoline prices) the most fuel-efficient vehicle available.

Toyota has a new product that I regard as fitting the bill, a four-door, five-passenger, part electric, part gasoline-powered automobile called the "Prius." But I am having a difficult time getting my hands on it. If I'm lucky, my order will be filled in three months or so (a lag time with which every would-be purchaser has to contend).

Is the reason for the protracted delay because Toyota can't keep up with a flood of orders? Well, Toyota has clearly fallen behind schedule, but whether the company should be in that position is a more complicated question. I also have my doubts about Toyota's current effectiveness in tapping the potential market for the car.

A Toyota spokesman says orders for the Prius (which has only been marketed in the United States since July) have been more than twice the 2,000 cars that have so far been delivered to this country. He adds that because Toyota "doesn't want to deplete pent-up demand," it is proceeding at a cautious pace.

I would submit that the pent-up demand is far greater than Toyota presently envisions, at least in the relatively affluent Washington metropolitan area where I live.

Like everywhere else in the nation, people in this region are worried about soaring gasoline prices, and in some instances, are experiencing severe economic hardship due to expenditures at the pump. But there's more. The Washington metropolitan area has become undisputed runner-up to Los Angeles for the dubious distinction of harboring the worst traffic congestion in the land.

Unlike their Los Angeles counterparts, most Washington motorists travel relatively short distances to their workplace, shopping and recreational destinations, especially in some mass transit-poor suburbs. Hence, the frustrating stop-and-go driving here is even more intrusive than it is on the West Coast, playing right into one of Prius' main advantages, a 55-miles-to-the-gallon rate as one navigates through congested urban corridors.

The Toyota car's gasoline engine shuts off and its battery takes over when the vehicle is idling or crawling at a snail's pace as is commonplace in Washington's daily traffic jams. Furthermore, the car's excellent pollution abatement system would be a godsend to this region, whose primary cause of deteriorating air quality is automobile exhaust.

Yet despite the Prius' three years of commercial success in Japan, and an enthusiastic endorsement of the vehicle from environmental and governmental circles here, Toyota is gingerly entering the American marketplace.

The Japanese formally introduced the Prius to our shores two months ago, yet I was only the third person to place an order with the local Toyota dealership that handled my early September request. Most of my friends did not recognize the name Prius, although they all had heard of the term "hybrid cars," even if they were not exactly sure what it meant.

The company claims that it has launched an extensive national advertising campaign, but as I've noted, the car is not exactly a household name in my area.

There is no mention of the Prius in the pages of automobile ads featured in the daily newspapers. No commercials have been aired on the local network affiliate television channels or radio stations here. While the Prius is not a military secret, customers primarily order it from an Internet Web site rather than from a salesman in a car dealership, thereby confining ownership largely to computer buffs, at least in my neck of the woods.

Toyota says it has started slowly with the Prius to test the waters and will gradually increase production if justified by consumer demand. The company also is working on applying Prius engineering technology to other types of vehicles, and that is good news even if small consolation to my immediate needs.

According to initial sales reports, California's technology-minded Silicon Valley leads the country in customer demand for the Prius.

Perhaps reflecting a fall out from an absence as yet of an aggressive local publicity campaign, some automobile dealers in my area fear that the Prius won't be able to compete with the appeal of sport utility vehicles and flashy sports cars.

I think their concerns are unfounded. Indeed, I am confident that this region's air pollution authorities would effectively promote, and many a budget-conscious, gridlock-frustrated motorist would rush to buy the Prius if better informed and given half a chance.

So here is the message for Toyota. Don't be so skittish about exhausting pent-up demand. Drop the timidity, rev up your assembly lines, and truly make this car of tomorrow the car of today.

Edward Flattau is a Washington-based columnist who writes about environmental issues.

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