Fuel price uncertainty driving up interest in better gas mileage

Dennis Webb
GSPI News Editor

As gas prices soared this year, Rego Omerigic of Glenwood Springs bought two new gas-electric hybrid cars. Now he’s eyeing cutting-edge hydrogen vehicles.

“I’m kind of waiting to see how the hydrogen vehicles turn out,” said Omerigic, vehicle fleet manager for Pitkin County government. “If they get the funding for the infrastructure, the fueling stations to support them, I think they’ll take off even faster than the hybrid vehicles.”

Car-buyers like Omerigic may still be the exception. Car lots remain full of big vehicles for which fuel efficiency isn’t exactly the selling point. But with high gas prices and an unstable global situation, miles per gallon are increasingly on the minds of motorists.

Chet Garling, sales manager of Bighorn Toyota, has been promoting the hybrid Toyota Prius, which can get more than 50 miles per gallon in city driving.

“We sold four of them this month. We usually sell right around two a month,” he said in late March.

At Canyon Honda, “A lot of people are inquiring about the hybrid,” reports John Fetzko, sales manager.

Hybrid vehicles use a combination gas/electric engine. Honda offers hybrids in its two-door Insight, and as an option in its four-door Civic. Fetzko said all of Honda’s hybrids get more than 50 mpg. The Insight’s manual transmission version is rated at more than 60 mpg.

Shoppers looking for traditional gas-powered vehicles may have fuel efficiency more on their minds these days.

Guy Poorman of Rifle recently browsed the Ford and Chevy lots in West Glenwood, with his 2-year-old son, Walker, in tow.

“I kind of need a truck, but I’ve got a little Geo Tracker. I hate to get rid of it because of the gas,” Poorman. The Tracker gets 22-24 mpg.

Poorman and his wife want a pickup to do work around the house they just bought. But he may settle on a light truck that exacts a lesser toll at the pump.

Mike Riley, sales manager at Two Rivers Chevrolet, said interest in fuel-efficient vehicles “hasn’t been a big thing yet.”

“We do a lot of trucks here. We get a lot of construction workers, so they need the trucks; they have to buy them,” he said.

Fuel efficiency isn’t generally a consideration for these customers, he said.

“They’re just coming in and getting what they need,” he said.

Riley noted that Chevrolet plans to introduce a hybrid vehicle in 2005.

It’s not just hybrids attracting interest. Garling and Fetzko said their dealerships are benefiting from the overall good gas mileage of many Toyota and Honda models.

“We had 26 2002 Civics – those 26 sold out in four months,” said Fetzko. “That’s moving them. And the reason being is because of the gas mileage.”

The nonhybrid Civic still gets more than 40 mpg, he said. And it and other Hondas are low-emission vehicles, he said. “People are very conscious about that around here,” he said.

For some, fuel-efficient vehicles are a political statement, especially as the United States is engaged in a war that some critics contend is oil-motivated.

“This car gets 42 miles per gallon,” boasted a bumper sticker on a Honda Civic recently parked at the Glenwood Springs Mall. Other stickers supported the United Nations and stated, “There is only one earth.”

Gas mileage and vehicle emissions led Omerigic to begin using hybrid vehicles in Pitkin County’s fleet.

“It’s one of our goals to become as pollution-free as we can be. Of course, the fuel savings is one of the benefits of doing that,” he said.

Pitkin County spends $75,000 a year on gasoline and $58,000-$60,000 a year on diesel, so the savings from fuel-efficient vehicles can be substantial.

“We’re really hoping to see some cost savings, especially now with the way the economy is, the stock market and how it drives our fuel prices,” said Omerigic.

He said the county budgeted around $1.28 per gallon this year for gas under the lower-cost price available to governments. But that price has gone as high as $1.47 per gallon.

With the need to economize, especially at a time of sagging tax revenues, Omerigic e-mailed county employees with tips on cutting down on fuel consumption, such as combining trips, regularly maintaining vehicles, driving less aggressively and getting around by bus, carpool, bicycle and foot.

Omerigic and other workers in Pitkin County’s road and bridge and fleet maintenance crews ride a natural gas-powered county van to get to work.

“It’s really nice to have that carpooling option, especially with the natural gas vehicle,” he said.

Poorman, who works at the Glenwood Springs water treatment plant, also commutes in a city-provided van.

But sometimes driving is the only way to get someplace. That’s when the hybrid vehicle makes sense.

“We were real happy with the first one we got two years ago,” he said. It averaged about 52 mpg.

“If you get it stuck in some stop-and-go traffic, they hardly use any fuel at all,” he said.

That’s because the car shuts off the gas engine when stopped at intersections, relies on electric rather than gas power at low speeds, and recharges the battery through braking.

Fuel savings and lower emissions aren’t the only reasons to go hybrid. State and federal tax incentives provide thousands of dollars in savings for purchases of hybrids.

But that doesn’t matter for some motorists.

“We have a lot of second-home owners in Aspen and Vail that shop here,” said Bighorn Toyota’s Garling. “They don’t care. They still buy Land Cruisers, Sequoias, big cars.”

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