Prius drivers get last laugh

A Toyota Prius on display
A Toyota Prius on display Toyota / MCT

Justin Wages became "one of them" when he bought a new Toyota Prius hybrid three years ago.

"I always had really high-horsepower racing cars, so all my friends on that side give me the tree-hugger, hippy stuff," says Wages, who lives in the south Placer city of Lincoln. "My Prius gets 53 mpg, but if I take the back roads, drive slow and am careful, I've gotten 62 mpg."

Described as looking like an orthopedic shoe, a doorstop and much worse, the hybrid gas-electric Prius nonetheless has become a no-brainer for drivers with a yen for low emissions and high mileage. The Environmental Protection Agency ranked the Prius No. 1 in 2008 fuel economy – 48 mpg in the city, 45 highway.

"It's kind of ugly, but when you're getting 48 mpg, it grows on you," explains Jason Smith, 46, of Carmichael, owner of a 2007 Prius.

The Prius, like the Corvette and the Porsche, comes with an avid fan base and brand loyalty as standard equipment. It may be homely – and it's certainly no muscle car – but Prius owners are thicker than peanut butter and defend their high-mileage hybrids with monastic resolve.

"The Prius, by far, has the most model loyalty," says John Roth, sales manager at Roseville Toyota and Scion. "The people who trade one in buy another."

Brand loyalty, coupled with rising gas prices, has pushed demand and resulted in a scarcity of new Priuses. In the Prius world, demand has become a Double Western Bacon Cheeseburger and supply a ribbon of lettuce.

The shortage of new Priuses is evident at dealerships across the country. Some offer waiting lists, and it's first come, first served at others as salespeople wait for the next delivery.

"We could sell 20 in a week," Roth says.

For those who drive a Prius, the current shortage is additional assurance that they did the right thing.

Smith, a process engineer for Blue Cell Technology, had been driving a '97 Ford Explorer.

"Now, it sits in my driveway," he says. "It wasn't worth enough to trade in. On my commute, it got 14 or 15 mpg. I tried not to pay much attention to that."

Smith chose the Prius because it would stretch his gas dollars. He became interested in hybrids when gas reached $2.60 a gallon.

With a girlfriend and two dogs, Dingo and Digby, usually along for the ride, Smith was looking for a car that got at least 30 mpg and was a four-door hatchback. At 6-foot-1, he also needed head- and legroom, which the Prius provided.

Among the lowest-emissions cars on the road, the Prius is a favorite with the green crowd.

"I'm not fanatical about green, but it's an added benefit," Smith says. "Driving through a national park and the engine is off, you're running on battery power."

Wages became increasingly concerned about the environment and now studies ecology and biodiversity, works for the Placer Land Trust and is vice president of Sierra College's environmental club, ECOS.

"My main reason for buying a Prius was to have less of an impact on the environment as far as my driving," he says. "I see it as my best option at the current time."

Wages once raced an extended-cab GMC four-wheel-drive truck. Its twin turbochargers and methanol injection generated 850 hp and got him 13 mpg on the street. But that wasn't his worst-mileage vehicle. He once owned a pickup with a big-block Chevy engine that sucked gas to the tune of 9 mpg.

Today, he's chosen to be a preserver rather than a polluter.

"Here I was driving a gas guzzler, no catalytic converter and smoking people out," he says.

"I thought, 'Is it my emissions that are going to trigger a little girl's asthma attack?' That was my turning point."

Overcome by the itch to see what his slowpoke hybrid might do at the drag strip, Wages once headed to Sacramento Raceway Park.

"I beat a Scion xB," Wages proudly says. "The Prius isn't the fastest car. I think I made a sandwich and took a nap during the race."

Sara Sepulveda of Sacramento chose the Prius not so much for its environmental benefits as for improved gas mileage and family budgetary reasons.

She traded in a Honda Odyssey minivan for her blue 2007 Prius. Gas mileage improved from "less than 20" in the van to 48 mpg in the Prius.

"My husband was interested in the technology; I was more for being cheap," she says.

Steve Holtman, 36, of Rancho Cordova took a ribbing at work when we traded in his 2007 Chevy Avalanche for a Prius. Now he's doing the laughing.

"I can see it if you need an SUV for business, or have an RV or a boat and you're stuck needing one," he says. "But if you're just driving around in an SUV, it's really laughable. I said and did the same things – 'I'm bigger and I ride higher than everybody' – up until last February."

Shelling out $120 to fill the Avalanche and making regular trips to downtown Sacramento for his daughter's acting classes, he made the decision to go hybrid. His mileage improved from 14 mpg to 45 mpg.

Holtman figures he lost $3,000 to $5,000 by getting rid of the Avalanche after only 11 months and buying a new Prius, but he expects to make it back in gas savings.

"At today's prices, I'd be paying $150 to fill up the Avalanche," he calculates. "You get to the point that you get angry about having to put gas in it. It's absurd wasting that much money."