US consumers still skeptical of green cars

Consumers in the United Kingdom like cars that get great mileage.

In fact, according to a recent study by, Toyota Prius sales in Great Britain are up 51.5 percent in the first quarter of 2011 and Nissan's Leaf looks like another big hit.

Meanwhile, across the pond, U.S. consumers are less excited by green automobiles, a category that includes hybrids and electric. Sure, small car sales are up and Chevy's done great business with its revamped automotive lineup that includes the electric/gas Volt.

But automotive consultant JD Power and Associates in its inaugural 2011 U.S. Green Automotive Study says, "Automakers will be fighting over the relatively few consumers who are willing to drive green."

It could be the price of fuel. reported an average UK cost to the equivalent of about $8.33 per gallon. That compares with a California average of about $4.12 as of May 23, according to AAA.

Big motivator. Americans are used to towing, hauling and packing in the number of passengers we want. Need help with that horse trailer? How about grabbing a tow bar and dragging that piece of junk Oldsmobile to the nonprofit junk car fundraiser?

Sure, we say. No problem. That's what that 460-cubic-inch monster in the pickup out back is for. Step on the gas pedal and watch the little red needle on the fuel gauge drop. It's a matter of pride with a lot of us.

Westlake Village, Calif.-based JD Power says that cultural phenomenon may stick with us awhile. I certainly haven't seen a decrease in the number of massive SUVs on the road. I find it reassuring to be sandwiched between a couple of them in a parking lot. Backing-out roulette is always an invigorating experience.

The study says consumers cite purchase price as a stumbling block to get into the new line of green cars. Remember, this is for electric and hybrid automobiles.

Other problems mentioned by consumers were driving range, or lack of it (a Leaf, according to a source, gets about 84 miles to a charge), increased maintenance costs and performance. The study says consumers are more likely to "switch into a more fuel-efficient vehicle powered by a traditional internal combustion engine than an alternative powertrain vehicle."

Yet, I've written about how Honda has positioned its hybrid Insight base price very close to that of the Civic. The statistics for performance aren't much different, although, and I've mentioned this before, my wife said there was no way anybody would catch her behind the wheel of "that thing," as she referred to the Insight. She purchased a Civic.

Peggy's issue was more cosmetic. She didn't care for the design, but like other consumers in the JD Power study she also worried about battery replacement costs.

My family tends to keep our cars and drive them a lot. Our daughter sold the 1986 Accord LX at 360,000 miles and it was still going somewhat strong. My 1981 Toyota pickup was cut up for scrap at about 260,000 miles but by that time was so tired and rotted out rust-wise that it had few usable parts.

And I'm still bound and determined to keep my 1974 Super Beetle functioning.

Drivers in the UK are a bit more adventurous, and perhaps a bit more insightful. Chris Green, co-founder and sales director of, said increased demand can be traced to increased reliability and performance.

"In the future, we will see more and more people opting for cars that are cheap to maintain rather than splashing out on models to impress the neighbours," Green said in a statement. He estimated demand will increase in the island nation dramatically over the next 18 months.

And in this country, expectations are that consumers will buy into the alternative concept. Nissan has said it will install 30 solar-assisted charging stations at its Smyrna Vehicle Assembly Plant in Franklin, Tenn.

And they will have a lot to choose from. JD Power says that by the end of 2016, it expects manufacturers to offer 159 hybrid and electric vehicle models in the U.S. market. In 2009, there were 31.

Photo: Along the Oodnadatta Track, Australia, by mancity.

Honda tempts new market with cheap Insight

Honda recently released a new value model of its hybrid Insight.

The manufacturer's suggested retail price is $18,200 plus a delivery fee of about $750. It's a base model designed to appeal to buyers possibly on the fence about purchasing a hybrid. That's a significant difference from Toyota's Prius, priced at $22,800, and Ford's Fusion hybrid, priced at $28,990.

Hybrid sales are expected to decline for the third year in a row, according to Bloomberg Businessweek, and this may be an effort by Honda America to inject some energy and a new demographic into the gas/electric sector.

That theory got me thinking about my own brush with a hybrid purchase. At the Central California Auto Show in Fresno in 2008, my wife and I spent a little time sitting in a nice dark blue Civic hybrid debating its merits: fuel economy versus a higher price tag.

We were still thinking about it last year when she and I walked into the Clawson Honda showroom in Fresno intent on leaving with a vehicle.

We'd done quite a bit of research and wanted a fuel-saving, bullet-proof commuter that could put up with Peggy's daily commute to Riverdale, a quiet hamlet surrounded by dairies about 30 minutes south of our house in Clovis. The hybrid wasn't off the menu, but we had settled on the price not exceeding $21,000.

She just wanted a Honda.

I didn't argue. She was driving a 1986 Accord LX fastback when we met. My impression was typical: nice car, gorgeous girl.

We had the transmission rebuilt and gave it to our daughter at 186,000 miles. It lived through Anchorage, Alaska salt-infused winters, blown over Douglas fir trees on Camano Island's Sunset Beach in Washington and the desert winter wind in Kennewick, Wash. with nary a scratch and an almost immaculate interior. It's still alive in Bellingham, Wash. My daughter sold it to a college student. It has almost 400,000 miles on the odometer.

That Accord was a billboard for the Honda nameplate. However, I talked my wife into replacing it with a Volkswagen Passat station wagon. My reasoning was simple. Honda didn't have a station wagon, and we needed something more economical for trips than the Jeep Grand Wagoneer and its 10 mpg.

That day in the Clawson Honda showroom went pretty much as expected. We told the salesman our terms, saw what they had in stock and wound up settling on a gray Civic very similar to hundreds of thousands of others on U.S. streets.

While my wife negotiated details, which were pretty straightforward since we paid cash, I went and sat in the Honda Insight. "You could be driving this for a few thousand more," I told her.

She made a face, saying there was no way under any circumstances she would be seen in "that car." She considers it and the Prius some of the ugliest hunks of metal on the road.

Clawson didn't have a Civic hybrid or if the dealer did, it was white and too boring to consider. This, I should mention, was my wife's decision, but I think white is boring too. Maybe not with six coats of pearl.

If the dealer had an Insight with $18,200 on the window sticker, it may have made a little difference. At least to me. If the hybrid Civic was cheaper, we'd be driving one.

Last year's cost differential between gas and hybrid just didn't make financial sense. The gas version gets superior mileage without a battery pack that could cost big bucks in the later years of ownership. Both Honda hybrids are rated at 40 city and 43 highway and No. 3 on EPA's fuel sipper list. The gas Civic is something like 28/33.

Maybe others think like we did. And maybe they'll change their minds as prices for hybrids decline as I believe they will with Honda's move.

Maybe automakers will push for the second-car market. Katie Fehrenbacher of reported that some of electric car builders appear to be pushing in that direction.

After we bought the Civic, I got the Passat. I love that car. Turbo, black, German engineering thing. Two weeks after parking the 1974 Bug, which I had driven exclusively for about seven years after selling the Jeep, the 2000 Passat died. I had failed to replace the timing belt at 90,000 miles.

The mechanic at Clovis Garage said, "Mike, sorry to tell you this, but it needs a new engine." I pushed the Passat into the back yard where it sat gathering a nice layer of dirt for about eight months and drove the Bug.

That new engine cost $6,600.