It’s Sunday on the Toyota lot in Santa Monica, and there’s not a single hybrid car to be had. The only two Priuses there are long bespoke, big red SOLD tags on their dashes, and there’s no Camry gas/electrics at all. These days, the time a Toyota hybrid remains on the lot is measured in minutes. This latest round of escalating gas prices have caught the car companies unprepared, and there is a distressing shortage of efficient cars available this summer.
The Toyota Prius is the biggest game-changer in automobilia since the Volkswagen Beetle, so huge a hit that Toyota announced this week that they’re going to begin building them in Mississippi year after next. But cars are what advertising people call an “emotional buy” – a choice based less on reason than feelings. The Prius has an interior that’s exactly as big as a Camry’s and more cargo space, but it looks and feels small and there’s been some grumbling about how hard it is to see out the back of it. Yes, it’s a amazing car, but try getting one these days. Elsewhere for sale on Santa Monica Boulevard, there’s Honda’s Civic Hybrid, but buyers are being wait-listed for it too, and it has one-tenth less room than a Prius; Ford’s Escape is an SUV, making it a non-choice for a lot of people; Saturn’s Aura uses a cheap controlling technology that drags its mileage well under thirty MPG. If what you want is a hybrid that has the room and performance of a standard sedan, and you want it now, there’s Nissan’s Altima Hybrid.
The two Priuses waiting for pickup on Sunday were both stickered at just over $24,000. This Altima with comparable trim goes for about a thousand more. The heart of Prius’ success is Toyota’s matchless computer control system that decides whether to turn your wheels with electric or gas. Nissan bought this technology from Toyota, then put a battery pack between Altima’s trunk and the back seat, lopping off about a third of the trunk’s space to accommodate it. Its mileage – 35 mpg city, 33 mpg highway – is well below the Prius’ glorious 48/45, but far better than those very small Yaris and Fit cars you’re starting to see a lot of.Altima Hybrid qualifies for the IRS’ Alternative Motor Vehicle Credit, a tax writeoff of up to $2350. Whatever hybrid you buy, look into the tax implications of each model: they vary widely and are a key factor in the car’s true cost. The Altima’s basic warranty is three years or thirty-six thousand miles, though the batteries are covered for eight years or one hundred thousand miles. Never forget, though, that a hybrid car is a complex mating of gas and electric technologies managed by a computer. Whatever hybrid you get, it’s a good idea to extend its warranty for as long as you figure to keep it.