The little engines that could, now go whirrrr

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Carmakers call interested buyers of Prius and Insight the "early adapters."

There's plenty of window shopping by the curious, but Toyota Motor Sales USA and American Honda Motor Co. are hanging out front like the vanguard for the auto industry.

At Troy Honda, a Michigan dealership, there are never more than two or three Honda Insights on the lot, and those are usually there by request of customers.

The first electric-gas hybrids available in the U.S. are the first wave of fuel-sipping options.

The Insight and the Toyota Prius feature startling technological achievements, using Honda's Integrated Motor Assist system and the Toyota Hybrid System, both virtually seamless, using electricity or gas alone or in combination.

A Prius with automatic transmission can go nearly 600 highway miles on a tank of gas; the five-speed manual Insight does about 700 miles on one tank.

For consumers who saw gas prices top $2 a gallon last year, these are amazing numbers.

TECHIES ON BOARD

Dealers say early buyers of the $19,000 to $21,000 Insight and Prius are "techies"-the cutting-edge folks who are first with new bells and whistles, from vehicles to computers.

"One guy at the Detroit auto show this year paid his own admission every day to go in and rave to people about his new Insight," says Dan Amell, general sales manager for Troy Honda. "These cars have a real cult following; there's a hard-core fan club set up with Web sites and everything."

Despite all that, the ecology-minded cars haven't caught on in the mass market.

Advertising support for the green cars is taking a back seat to more lucrative, pressing business needs, like building floor traffic.

A scant 1.5% of consumers buy vehicles rated over 40 miles per gallon for fuel efficiency, says Gloria Bergquist, VP at the Alli-ance of Automobile Manufactur-ers, an industry group representing 13 global automakers.

"Other values seem to be driv-ing consumer buying habits. At least in America, consumers value space, comfort and power-they want to be productive when commuting," she says. "It will be interesting to see if the industry can cultivate a green preference, or if it's always going to be a niche market."

Advocates say consumers don't understand the confusing environmental tech lingo, and they need to be better informed of their choices in purchasing environmental vehicles.

"The majority of Americans have an unfulfilled need to restore and preserve the environment," says William Mattick, president-CEO of Amesaward.com, an environmental marketing and research business. "If you consider that almost 70% to 90% of all people recycle their trash, it's not outlandish to think they would buy cars and trucks that are earth-friendly if information is presented to them in an easy to understand way."

"And that's the job of automotive advertising," says Mr. Mattick.

CUPHOLDERS MORE POPULAR

If automakers advertised their good environmental scores, more consumers might choose the cleaner, fuel-efficient vehicles, he says. "The bizarre thing is that the placement of a cupholder in a car gets more attention than the environment-and that's the responsibility of advertising."

"Automotive advertisers aren't doing the job of promoting their green records, just as years ago, they didn't promote safety," says Amesaward.com partner Larry Rankin.

Of the more than $8.3 billion spent yearly on advertising, less than $50 million goes toward environmental marketing, he adds.

Toyota and Honda say they're committed to the future. But advertising plans look to be mostly blue-sky material. Volume is still low, pegged at about 17,000 to 19,000 a year. Toyota is producing about 1,000 Prius models a month. Honda plans to build 5,000 Insights this year, up about 25% from last year. Since Prius' overseas introduction in 1997, Toyota has sold more than 50,000 units worldwide.

Toyota marketers say they're studying more comprehensive advertising.

Prius "is the only five-passenger hybrid product in the marketplace that's [Super Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle] rated, with great fuel economy and a strong focus on technology," says a Toyota Motor Sales USA spokesman. "We believe there's long-range potential for the product."

SPENDING MODERATE

Toyota spent $24.8 million to support the Prius in 2000, up from $4.5 million in 1999 according to Taylor Nelson Sofres' CMR. Honda spent $12.6 million for the Insight in 2000, up from $225,000 in 1999.

Art Garner, acting as Honda's chief of product information on hybrids, says, "Given the low volume and all else we have to do, Insight doesn't get much advertising emphasis."

But the green-car vehicle picture will change as more players appear. Ford Motor Co. plans to produce a high-volume hybrid Escape SUV by 2003 that will get 40 mpg/city, ramping up production to about 250,000 units. Following suit in 2004 are DaimlerChrysler with a hybrid Dodge Durango truck model and a Toyota-General Motors Corp. joint venture light truck.

Mr. Mattick points out that buying the environmentally friendly vehicles endorsed by third-party groups can make a big difference. "If we can move consumers to buy [them] we could remove 17 billion pounds of carbon dioxide from the air, and that's the equivalent of taking one-half million large SUVs off the road."

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